Malcolm Grant has the serene demeanour that might be expected of the head of one of London’s most prestigious universities. But mention the Government’s latest counter-terrorism strategy and its insistence that universities must do more to look for potential extremists, and his mood changes.
“That was just stupid,” he says, with a look of exasperation on his face as he rounds on ministers for their accompanying suggestion that previous inaction has allowed campuses to become breeding grounds for terrorists.
“It was stupid to say that of those convicted of terrorism offences, more than 30 per cent had been to university, and to suggest that there was a link. It is simply a reflection of the fact that a large proportion of the population have been to university. There seems to be no evidence of a causal connection between attendance at university and engagement in religiously inspired violence.”
As the provost of University College London, Professor Grant has particular reason to have thought carefully about the issue. One of UCL’s former students, the alleged “underpants bomber”, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, is due to go on trial in the US today charged with trying to blow up a transatlantic airliner as it flew into Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.
Subsequent investigations by MI5 and Scotland Yard have suggested that the Nigerian-born student, who studied mechanical engineering at UCL between 2005 and 2008, did not engage in terrorist activity until later, when he moved to Yemen and came under the influence of Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical al Qaeda preacher killed in a US drone strike last month.
Ministers singled out the case, however, when unveiling their updated “Prevent” counter-terrorism strategy earlier this year and claimed that Abdulmutallab, who served as president of UCL’s Islamic Society, had been “attracted to and influenced by extremist ideology while at university”, making him an example of the type of student that campus leaders should do more to look out for.
Other London university-educated terrorists include Abdulla Ahmed Ali, convicted of plotting to blow up transatlantic planes in 2006 using liquid bombs, who is an engineering graduate from City. Ali’s co-conspirator, Assad Sarwar, was convicted of the same charge and dropped out of a science course at Brunel University. Roshonara Choudhry, who studied English at King’s College, stabbed East Ham MP Stephen Timms in his surgery because he voted in favour of invading Iraq.
Speeches by Prime Minister David Cameron and Home Secretary Theresa May have emphasised further the Government’s belief that universities need to be vigilant about prospective terrorists in their midst, while the Prevent strategy itself talks of “training staff to recognise the signs of radicalisation” and using police to help institutions deemed to be “at the greatest risk”.
Such statements have already prompted complaints that lecturers are being asked to “spy” on their students. Professor Grant, a New Zealand-born barrister and academic who took charge of UCL in 2003, chooses more measured words, but makes it clear that he considers the Government’s belief is not only misguided, but impractical too.
His particular bugbear is the notion that academics should be able to detect radicalisation; an idea that he believes is based on an outdated view of university life articulated by Oxford-educated ministers taught in a collegiate system which bears little resemblance to those which prevail in large metropolitan institutions such as UCL
“There is a risk that politicians are seeing contemporary universiities through the prism of Oxford 20 years ago,” he says. “Modern universities are open communities with thousands of students who spend much of their time elsewhere and are subject to many other influences.
“They are institutions that have been transformed through an era of mass education and the development of modern means of communication. So it has been surprising that political leaders have had so little contact with university leaders as they have developed the Prevent strategy; indeed no contact.”
Asked if that means the Government, whose Oxford graduates include Mr Cameron, Mrs May and Education Secretary Michael Gove, is out of touch with university life today, Professor Grant replies “yes”, warning that their approach also threatens freedom of speech.
“No one should imagine that universities can substitute for the intelligence services. Not only is it impractical, but it also cuts across the important personal relationship between the student and the tutor.
“You shouldn’t be clamping down on ordinary rights of assembly and discussion in an open society. These are very important values inherent in the very idea of university and the development of ideas.”
So is there really no problem with extremism on campus? Professor Grant thinks so, although he emphasises that the “law is quite tight” on hate speech and inciting violence and that the university would step in if it felt that such offences were taking place. Beyond this, however, he believes that the problem has been over-hyped.
“Talk to our Muslim and Jewish students and they will tell you that it is a non-issue: it just doesn’t exist,” he says, offering to allow those who doubt his assertion the chance to talk to his undergraduates, in person, to assess the reality for themselves.
With the new university term just under way, terrorism is only one of many subjects preoccupying Professor Grant as he sits in his office at UCL’s main building in Bloomsbury.
Most pertinently, there is the prospect of £9,000 tuition fees next year coupled with sweeping cuts in Government funding, which he believes could have a significant impact on even prestigious institutions such as UCL.
“We are in very uncertain times,” he warns. “We will need to see whether there is a drop in the proportion of students who study at university and the longer-term consequences in particular. Even a university as strong as this is having to look at and think about everything we do.”
On tuition fees themselves, he believes the increase from just over £3,000 to the new £9,000 maximum is a “huge leap” which would have been “more palatable” if phased in over several years.
Despite this, he believes that for a UCL education, the newly inflated price remains “good value”, although he is “quite troubled” by the thought that some students will shun degrees that do not appear obvious routes to a highly paid job.
“Our figures show that students who have done degrees in the arts and humanities are just as employable,” he says. “They have different skills, but they have ended up in the City alongside those from more traditional routes. Parents should not be dissuading children from doing what they love.”
The introduction of higher tuition fees has led to renewed pressure from ministers for universities to do more to recruit students from poorer backgrounds through bursaries and other schemes.
Professor Grant says that UCL already does everything it can to “reach out” to such students but insists that the Government’s focus on forcing universities to offer favourable admission terms to such students should only be a “transitional” response.
A better answer, he says, is the one that UCL is pursuing: to expand the number of suitably qualified teenagers by improving the quality of state education. In UCL’s case that involves setting up its own secondary school, the new UCL Academy, which will open in Swiss Cottage next year.
“We need to be able to bring what our state schools do in developing students’ abilities and aspiration to the same level that comes out of our private schools,” he adds. “That is the long-term answer. It is about creating the right ethos and culture and we are hoping that what we are establishing with the new academy will show what can be achieved.”
While debates about the quality of state education will continue, Professor Grant remains bullish about standards at UCL, which was placed among the world’s top 20 universities in a recently-published league table, and higher education in general.
“We knock down our universities and talk as if students are all going to run off to New Zealand and the US,” he says. “But the truth is they will get an outstanding education in this country. London, in particular, has some outstanding universities which are going to continue to thrive.”