FEfocus Editorial - Colleges are no place for fanatics

10th June 2011 at 01:00

It is hard to argue against the aims of the Prevent strategy in confronting violent extremist ideology (page 2). But as it applies to colleges, it asks us to take some major issues simply on trust.

Not enough has been done in colleges so far to address extremism, the strategy says. Yet there is no evidence that anyone involved in terrorism has been recruited to violent groups as a result of their involvement in further education.

Ask ministers directly if they have seen evidence and they mutter about secrecy and intelligence; they certainly do not give a simple "yes". But if any of Britain's terror suspects had been radicalised in a college, the truth is we would probably have heard of it: all of those accused of violent extremism have had every detail of their biography under scrutiny.

Nevertheless, we must consider the evidence we do have - that 15 per cent of those convicted of Al Qaeda-linked terrorist offences attended further education. The very least it suggests is that some extremists may be in colleges, and it is only prudent to assume they will try to convince others of their ideas.

But if colleges are not doing enough, then it makes no sense to have disbanded the group of principals responsible for helping to tackle extremism, saying their work is done. This is, at best, sending mixed messages.

FE minister John Hayes has a more nuanced assessment of the situation, which acknowledges that if less progress has been made in addressing extremism in colleges than in universities, then there have been good reasons for that, not least the Government's own priorities.

Mr Hayes also praised the contribution of the National Union of Students. The NUS's best insight has been to find an approach to addressing Islamic extremism that does not do more harm than good to race relations. Muslims, rightly, do not want to feel targeted; at the same time, Islamic extremism has been the most notable threat of recent years.

But by emphasising its "no platform for racists" policy, the NUS is able to isolate unacceptable ideological platforms without getting buried in complex ideological arguments. If there is an Islamic extremist group that is not also anti-Semitic, they have been keeping very quiet indeed. For colleges, a similar policy allows them to turn what could be seen as a censorship issue into a positive protection of students' rights and of the study environment.

The other explanation for there having been less progress on this issue in colleges is that their students are a more disparate group, living among their communities and not generally together on one campus.

But this is not so much an obstacle as an opportunity. Colleges bring together more parts of society in one place than perhaps any other institution. While their role in bringing together disparate parts of their communities can provoke tensions - the friction over Burnley College's ban on burqas being perhaps the most obvious example - you cannot have community cohesion without meeting places.

The evidence that colleges are breeding grounds for ideologies of terror is weak. But there is a real opportunity to concentrate on colleges' positive ability to integrate different communities and to act as a focal point for liberal, democratic values in the heart of many of our towns and cities.

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