Lecturers and university staff across Britain are to be asked to spy on “Asian-looking” and Muslim students they suspect of involvement in Islamic extremism and supporting terrorist violence, the Guardian has learned.
They will be told to inform on students to special branch because the government believes campuses have become “fertile recruiting grounds” for extremists.
The Department for Education has drawn up a series of proposals which are to be sent to universities and other centres of higher education before the end of the year. The 18-page document acknowledges that universities will be anxious about passing information to special branch, for fear it amounts to “collaborating with the ‘secret police'”. It says there will be “concerns about police targeting certain sections of the student population (eg Muslims)”.
The proposals are likely to cause anxiety among academics, and provoke anger from British Muslim groups at a time when ministers are at the focus of rows over issues such as the wearing of the veil and forcing Islamic schools to accept pupils from other faiths.
Wakkas Khan, president of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies, said: “It sounds to me to be potentially the widest infringement of the rights of Muslim students that there ever has been in this country. It is clearly targeting Muslim students and treating them to a higher level of suspicion and scrutiny. It sounds like you’re guilty until you’re proven innocent.”
Gemma Tumelty, president of the National Union of Students, said: “They are going to treat everyone Muslim with suspicion on the basis of their faith. It’s bearing on the side of McCarthyism.”
The document, which has been obtained by the Guardian, was sent within the last month to selected official bodies for consultation and reveals the full extent of what the authorities fear is happening in universities.
It claims that Islamic societies at universities have become increasingly political in recent years and discusses monitoring their leaflets and speakers. The document warns of talent-spotting by terrorists on campuses and of students being “groomed” for extremism.
In a section on factors that can radicalise students, the document identifies Muslims from “segregated” backgrounds as more likely to hold radical views than those who have “integrated into wider society”. It also claims that students who study in their home towns could act as a link between extremism on campuses and in their local communities.
The government wants universities to crack down on extremism, and the document says campus staff should volunteer information to special branch and not wait to be contacted by detectives.
It says: “Special branch are aware that many HEIs [higher education institutions] will have a number of concerns about working closely with special branch. Some common concerns are that institutions will be seen to be collaborating with the ‘secret police’.
“HEIs may also worry about what special branch will do with any information supplied by an HEI and what action the police may subsequently take … Special branch are not the ‘secret police’ and are accountable.”
The document says radicalisation on campus is unlikely to be overt: “While radicalisation may not be widespread, there is some evidence to suggest that students at further and higher educational establishments have been involved in terrorist- related activity, which could include actively radicalising fellow students on campus.” The document adds: “Perhaps most importantly, universities and colleges provide a fertile recruiting ground for students.
“There are different categories of students who may be ‘sucked in’ to an Islamist extremist ideology … There are those who may be new to a university or college environment and vulnerable to ‘grooming’ by individuals with their own agenda as they search for friends and social groups; there are those who may be actively looking for extremist individuals with whom to associate. Campuses provide an opportunity for individuals who are already radicalised to form new networks, and extend existing ones.”
The document urges close attention be paid to university Islamic societies and – under the heading “inspiring radical speakers” – says: “Islamic societies have tended to invite more radical speakers or preachers on to campuses … They can be forceful, persuasive and eloquent. They are able to fill a vacuum created by young Muslims’ feelings of alienation from their parents’ generation by providing greater ‘clarity’ from an Islamic point of view on a range of issues, and potentially a greater sense of purpose about how Muslim students can respond.”
It suggests checks should be made on external speakers at Islamic society events: “The control of university or college Islamic societies by certain extremist individuals can play a significant role in the extent of Islamist extremism on campus.”
The document says potential extremists can be talent-spotted at campus meetings then channelled to events off campus.
The document gives five real-life examples of extremism in universities. The first talks of suspicious computer use by “Asian” students, which was reported by library staff. In language some may balk at, it talks of students of “Asian appearance” being suspected extremists.
A senior education department source told the Guardian: “There’s loads of anecdotal evidence of radicalisation. At the same time there are people who pushing this who have their own agendas, and the government has to strike the right balance.”