The best response to terror is to keep our universities open and democratic

Parts of the government's counter-terror bill seriously clash with the duty to allow universities academic freedom


The counter-terrorism and security bill is due for debate again today in the House of Lords, when controversial duties on universities and colleges will be discussed. Along with many others in the sector, the University and College Union (UCU) has grave concerns about how this piece of legislation would place a new statutory duty on universities and colleges to ‘have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’.

What this means is that universities and colleges, who currently have their academic freedoms protected by law, may see their ability to debate important issues seriously curtailed.

A group of university vice-chancellors wrote to the Times last week arguing that to be effective in countering terrorism and radicalisation, universities had to remain independent from government. They said that the new statutory duty should not apply to universities and they should be exempt, as proposed for the security services and judicial bodies, as this would safeguard the universities as places where lawful ideas can be voiced and debated without fear of reprisal.

Yesterday over 500 of the UK’s most senior academics wrote to the Guardian expressing similar fears and calling for urgent steps to be taken to ensure that academic freedom remains uncompromised by efforts to tackle extremism in Britain.

Leading barrister Robert Moretto, who has advised government departments including the Home Office, Cabinet Office and Department of Justice, has argued that the government’s plans may be unworkable. In his legal guidance he said that parts of the bill clash with the duty for academic freedom currently enshrined in the Education (No. 2) Act 1986.

Opponents of the government’s proposals are many and varied; they include my union – the University and College Union – university groups, the National Union of Students, peers from all parties and the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

We are all agreed that any new obligations must ensure that controversial views can continue to be heard and contested. These freedoms underpin not just our country’s global reputation but also our liberal and democratic values.

That’s why we are supporting amendments to the bill which seek to ensure that academic freedom is protected within this new legislation. Unamended, this bill would undermine not only the ability of universities to stimulate public discourse on controversial issues, but also the vital trust relationship between staff and their students. Furthermore, it could seriously damage the attractiveness of our universities to international staff and students.

Our universities and colleges are centres for debate and open discussion, where received wisdom can be challenged and controversial ideas put forward in the spirit of academic endeavour. The best response to acts of terror is to retain our universities and colleges as open democratic spaces. Draconian crackdowns on the rights of academics and students will not achieve the ends the government says it seeks.

Sally Hunt is the general secretary of the University and College Union

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by becoming a Left Foot Forward Supporter today.