Despite efforts otherwise, the PREVENT agenda is very much perceived as a way of rooting out Islamic extremism in universities.
Figures released by the Home Office suggest that it now has a different role – rooting out right-wing extremism. Of 1,887 cases reported by the education sector (the largest single sector in terms of referrals), only 324 linked explicitly to Islamic extremism – 530 cases specified right wing extremism.
A growing concern
Through an overall decline in the number of cases (5,738 – down from 7,318 last year) the only area where reports are increasing (albeit only by 6 per cent from last year) are for right wing extremism. The numbers may be small, but the trend is a concern – for the whole programme the report tells us:
The number of referrals adopted as Channel cases for concerns related to right-wing radicalisation has increased by 50% from the year ending March 2018 to the current year, continuing the upward trend since the 2015 to 2016 financial year”
Under 30s still make up the bulk of referrals – this could be a function of the high number of referrals from education. There has been a small but concerning rise in older people being flagged – at both ends of this spectrum (if you discount the under 15s) the growth is in right wing extremism.
Free speech for all?
Meanwhile in the Queen’s speech we hear that:
The Government will ensure that our universities are places where free speech can thrive, and will strengthen academic freedoms.“
It’s not Islamic student groups at the forefront of campaigns for free speech on campus. Most of the reported incidents concern what could justifiably be described – in the main – as right wing speakers. Not all of them radicalise young people into acts of terror, I hasten to add – but many (I’m going to go ahead and name Jordan Peterson here as a very prominent example) could fairly be considered a gateway to elements of the globally resurgent far right that absolutely do.
Now, before you all pile on and tell me that the data quality here is suspect let’s the caveats out of the way. The data is for the whole education system, not just universities. And ideological groupings are not assigned to referees systematically. But on the other hand, these are at least “experimental” official statistics released under the Code of Practice – putting them on the same level of reliability as, say, LEO. It’s the best data we have.
This is a Home Office report that tells us that there is a serious and growing problem with right wing extremism (since 2016, if you want an auspicious date). If we feel like the government is taking such things seriously, it should – at this point – be taking steps to ensure that more students do not become dangerous right-wing radicals.
Time for action?
Instead the impression given is that the door is open – that an often discussed but never actually demonstrated left-wing bias on campus is to be robustly challenged, and as long as the challengers are not Islamic radicals there doesn’t appear to be much concern about who does this.
If you’ve been following the story closely you’ll know that the “free speech on campus” cultural moment is made up, at best, of a collection of half-remembered anecdotes and spurious extrapolation. Any attempt to gather serious evidence has failed, spectacularly, to do so.
Conditions are perfect for the right-wing radicalisation of students, and it’s at least arguable that this is what we are starting to see. We should be asking what the government intends to do about this present and growing risk.