Counter-terrorism officers have recently identified a number of universities to remain under close scrutiny, the Government has admitted.
Special Branch officers are being deployed in institutions deemed ‘at risk of being targeted by extremists’, amid growing fears that students are in danger of being groomed by fanatics.
Higher Education Minister David Lammy said that the threat posed to universities had been exaggerated, yet it remains an “extremely serious issue”.
Mr Lammy recently said on a BBC Radio 4 broadcast:
“We have identified universities for whom the risk is greater and they have to work closely with Special Branch, and so I think it is a partnership between leadership at universities and police”
He added, “We do not recognise a caricature of a significant risk across Britain.
But we do recognise that threat levels have been raised and that this is an extremely serious issue and that there are particular institutions – and those institutions are aware of this because we have brought it to their attention – where the risk is greater and those institutions are working very closely with the police and are working closely with Special Branch and those institutions [police and Special Branch] and present on campus”.
Mr Lammy refused to name the institutions in question.
The University of Sussex has a global reputation for radical thinking and famously had a MI6 operative working on campus in the 60’s to investigate whether students had links to communist Russia.
In addition to this the university has been told that it must ‘keep tabs’ on international students in order to prevent illegal immigration.
However, when The Badger asked a university spokesperson whether ‘high risk’ operatives were being placed at the University of Sussex, it was confirmed that “we are not one of the universities which the Government has identified as being at greater risk [and therefore needing to work closely with Special Branch].
We are of course actively working with the local Prevent Partnership in Brighton and Hove which is designed to challenge violent extremism and support mainstream voices”.
The move comes just weeks after former University College London student, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, sparked a major terror investigation following an alleged failed attempt to detonate explosives on a flight from Amsterdam to the United States on Christmas day.
Mr Abdulmutallab was president of the university’s Islamic Society for three years before graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering in June 2009.
The Higher Education Minister declined to comment on whether university Islamic societies should be more closely monitored.
He said: “Universities are autonomous. They work closely with the police and intelligence services, and I’m not going to comment further than that.”
Despite Mr Abdulmatallab being the sixth member of a UK student Islamic Society to be arrested for suspected terrorism offences, Quasim Rafiq, of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (Fosis) denied any link between student groups and terror plots.
“There is no evidence or no substantial evidence to suggest there is a radicalisation of extremism taking place on campus, as people have suggested”, he said.
University academics have been divided on how to deal with the issue.
Whilst Prof Anthony Glees, who wrote a 2005 report warning that ‘campuses have become a safe haven for extremists and many universities were in denial’, said that “universities should not be used as venues for extremist propaganda [and] should be about rational debate and balance”, Prof Malcolm Grant, provost of UCL, said universities had a responsibility to work closely with security services “but not as policemen”.
“Now let’s be real about this. The influences on young minds are many and various”, he added.