Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues in 2015: United Kingdom, Part 2 [Post 11 of a Series]


In terms of its impact on higher education, a major feature of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act was to be “an outright ban on extremist speakers, including non-violent extremists, . . . on university campuses” (Travis). Home Secretary Theresa May proposed that such a ban be “backed by contempt of court powers in reserve for any university vice-chancellor that refused to implement the ban” (Travis). But the House of Lords “insisted that universities’ academic freedom and duty to freedom of speech be given equal legal weight to the new duty to prevent staff and students being drawn into terrorism, leading to [a] compromise solution” (Travis). John Hayes, the Security Minister, said: “The new Prevent duty is about protecting people from the poisonous and pernicious influence of extremist ideas that are used to legitimise terrorism. The issue of how universities and colleges balance the Prevent duty with the importance of academic freedom is an extremely important one. We have now issued draft guidance for higher and further education institutions on managing external speakers. The guidance makes clear that speakers with extremist views must not go unchallenged” (Travis). In effect, if a speaker classified as “extremist” is to be invited to a campus, another speaker holding opposite views must also be invited to speak in order to mitigate the potentially damaging impact of any extremist viewpoints.


Six months before the compromise on extremist speakers, the elite debating societies at Oxford and Cambridge, known as “unions,” were exempted from the legislation after former members of the societies brought pressure on the government. The societies not only have long histories but in several famous instances were a mechanism for exposing extremist viewpoints to public attention and ridicule. Interestingly, both universities claimed that the exemption was unnecessary because the debating societies are not formally affiliated with the universities (Travis).


In September 2015, an incident occurred at Staffordshire University that illustrated the possibilities for damaging misapplications of and abuses of the legislation meant to curtail extremism on college and university campuses. Beyond the broader ironies, there were a number of ironies very specific to this case. First, Mohammed Umar Farooq, the student erroneously suspected of being a terrorist, was a “postgraduate student . . . in the terrorism, crime, and global security master’s programme” who was “reading a textbook entitled Terrorism Studies in the college library” (Ramesh). Second, he was approached by a university “complaint officer,” who never identified his position and whom Farooq assumed was a fellow student. This “complaint officer” questioned Farooq about his “attitudes to homosexuality, Islamic State (Isis) and al-Qaida” (Ramesh). Despite the fact that Farooq’s responses were “largely academic” while emphasizing “his personal opposition to extremist views,” the “complaint officer” reported the conversation to university security “because it had raised ‘too many red flags’” (Ramesh). Although Farooq, not surprisingly, initially thought that his subsequent interrogation by university security was “’a joke,’” he quickly recognized the need to retain legal counsel. Ultimately, the university issued a public apology to Farooq and “admitted that the accusation that he was a potential terrorist had exposed the difficulties in implementing the government’s new anti-radicalisation policy” (Ramesh). Outside groups “representing universities and students” issued strong statements that “the episode represented infringements on academic freedom” (Ramesh).


In April 2015, the University of Southampton decided to cancel a scheduled international conference on “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism.” The university itself asserted that the reason for cancelling the conference had nothing to do with academic freedom but with concerns over the ability to insure the safety of those attending the conference. But, both those who denounced and those who applauded the cancellation of the conference, emphasized that concerns about academic freedom underpinned their stances. Those who denounced the cancellation of the conference “have now taken the university to court, arguing that the decision was political, and that the university caved into what the organizers describe as a powerful Jewish lobby who have acted against the interests of academic freedom by silencing voices with which they do not agree” (Newman). At the opposite extreme, the Jewish community campaign, spearheaded by the Academic Friends of Israel (AFI) organization, argued that “it was the holding of the conference which was the negation of academic freedom”: “The organizers, they argue, set out to define their political position from the outset, namely that the existence of the State of Israel was not legitimate. The fact that many invitees who held a contrasting pro-Israel position were on the original guest list was, in the view of the AFI, nothing more than a smokescreen designed to portray a picture of balance and an attempt to gain legitimacy, when no balance was intended” (Newman).


Works Cited:

Newman, David. “Freedom of Speech at the University of Southampton.” Jerusalem Post 14 Apr. 2015: 15.

Ramesh, Randeep, and Josh Halliday. “Student Accused of Being a Terrorist for Reading Book on Terrorism.” Guardian 25 Sep. 2015.

Travis, Alan. “Oxford And Cambridge Unions Avoid Terror Ban on Extremist Speakers; Lobbying by Tory Peers Has Helped the Two Historic Student Societies Escape from the Home Secretary’s Crackdown on Extremism in Higher Education. “ Guardian 13 Mar. 2015.

—. “Universities Will Be Allowed to Host Extremist Speakers–within Limits; External Speakers at Campuses Must Share Platform with Opponents under Compromise on Government’s Prevent Counter-Extremism Strategy.” Guardian 18 July 2015.


8 Theresa May

Theresa May

9 John Hayes

John Hayes

10 Mohammed Umar Farooq

Mohammed Umar Farooq


Previous Posts in the Series:

Post 1. Canada—University of British Columbia [Part 1]:

Post 2. Canada—University of British Columbia [Part 2]:

Post 3. Canada—University of New Brunswick:

Post 4. Canada—Capilano University:

Post 5. Canada—Overview:

Post 6. Canada—Additional Items:

Post 7. Australia– Nikolic, Powell, and Price:

Post 8: Australia–Copenhagen Consensus Centre at Flinders University and Monash University Branch Campus in China:

Post 9: New Zealand—Police and Government Interference in Academic Freedom, Tertiary Education Union and Association of Scientists:

Part 10: United Kingdom, Part 1: Free-Speech Rankings, Issues in Higher Education, and the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act:


11 thoughts on “Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues in 2015: United Kingdom, Part 2 [Post 11 of a Series]

  1. Pingback: Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues in 2015 [Post 12 of Series] | ACADEME BLOG

  2. Pingback: Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues in 2015 [Post 13 of a Series] | ACADEME BLOG

  3. Pingback: Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues in 2015 [Post 14 of a Series] | ACADEME BLOG

  4. Pingback: Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues in 2015 [Post 15 of a Series] | ACADEME BLOG

  5. Pingback: Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues in 2015 [Post 16 of a Series] | ACADEME BLOG

  6. Pingback: Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues in 2015 [Post 17 of a Series] | ACADEME BLOG

  7. Pingback: Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues [Post 18 of a Series] | ACADEME BLOG

  8. Pingback: Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues [Post 19 of a Series] | ACADEME BLOG

  9. Pingback: Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues in 2015: [Post 20 of a Series] | ACADEME BLOG

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.