The debate surrounding British universities being a fertile breeding ground for terrorism precedes the comments made by Theresa May  and the existence of the ‘Prevent’ strategy. In fact, it is a debate that dates back to the late 1980s and the early 1990s, when political Islamic groups, such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir, operated unimpeded on numerous UK campuses.
However, since the attacks of 9/11, and especially 7/7, the mood changed toward individuals involved in such groups, who had hitherto been given free and open spaces, not only on university campuses, but in British society more generally. Exceptional legislative (and executive) powers were introduced through the enactment of various anti-terror laws that criminalised speech and actions that were not considered criminal under normal common-law principles, together with the implementation of a ‘Prevent’ strategy, whose official aim was to stop the spread of radicalisation and terrorism, in all towns and cities with more than 2,000 Muslim residents. Such an indiscriminate approach, inevitably, has led to a series of serious criticisms of Prevent.
With these criticisms in mind, the coalition government promised to review the Prevent strategy (and other counter-terrorism powers) when it took office. The allegation was that Prevent conflated “security” work with “integration” work and failed to address and tackle the ideology that was responsible for fuelling terrorism, which in turn led extremist organisations themselves to be funded via Prevent . The review was completed in June 2011 and has now, reportedly, been ‘refocused’.
The Home Office claims that the reviewed strategy enforces a clearer boundary between cohesion and security work and encourages closer cooperation between the State and institutions that are vulnerable to radicalisation. Unlike its predecessor, it also contains a newer, more robust funding structure that ensures governmental funding is not channelled to organisations that promote extremist beliefs 
However, the biggest change in the Prevent strategy comes in the form of challenging ‘non-violent extremism’. Prevent claims that non-violent extremism ‘creates an environment conducive to terrorism’ and therefore non-violent extremism must also be challenged. In other words, opinions and views espoused by terrorist organisations - for example, the establishment of an Islamic state, if supported by ordinary people - will now be subject to State intervention, even if the individual espousing them does not believe in violence as a means for bringing about such a change.
Essentially, this means that if a Muslim or an Islamic organisation holds an Islamic ideological or political outlook rather than a belief in Western liberal democratic structures, they will be targeted under Prevent.
Prevent and Universities
The revised Prevent strategy has selected universities, amongst others, as being vulnerable to radicalisation (pp.71-77). Glees and Pope argue that universities should be targeted by the State in terms of preventing terrorism because universities have been used, since the 1930s, as ‘safe haven[s] [for] the enemies of the open societies of the West’ .
Prevent adopts figures produced by the Centre for Social Cohesion (a right-wing think-tank) that strengthen the - arguably politicised - conclusions of Glees and Pope. These figures state that 30 per cent of people convicted for al-Qa’ida-related offences between 1999 and 2009 are known to have attended university or a higher education institution (p.73) and, therefore, universities are vulnerable to radicalisation. However, Professor Malcolm Grant, Provost of UCL and the chair of a UUK report produced in February 2011 on Free Speech and campus radicalism told the Times: "One hesitates to point out that this figure accords closely to the university-educated proportion of the population at large... A common mistake in statistics is confusing correlation and causation’ . Despite the questionable figure, the Prevent strategy claims that universities have a ‘clear and unambiguous role’ in preventing extremism and fighting terrorism (p.6), and thus the programme has been re-implemented across UK campuses. Such a blanket approach is not without its problems though.
A Lack of Accountability
The crux of the issue is that university managers have been converted from bureaucrats and administrators to counter-terrorism police officers and thought police enforcers, one-step removed. This is because managers who are involved in the running and maintenance of an academic institution are now expected to make unqualified decisions and judgements when, for instance, reporting individuals to police.
In other words, the onus of deciding on whether to report somebody for ‘mentoring’ or to the police for more recognisable ‘terrorist offences’ is now on managers and bureaucrats, who have to make judgements on what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable speech, behaviour and conduct.
This is highly problematic. Put simply, ‘university managers’ are not qualified or trained to make such decisions and this responsibility means that entirely innocent individuals will be reported to the police, unnecessarily.
The problem intensifies when one examines the issue of accountability. When the police make a judgement that is prejudiced, incorrect, illegal or even discriminatory, a series of institutions exist with the power and remit to investigate and hold them to account. Of course, whether such bodies are successful in holding them to account is a debateable matter, but at least such institutions and bodies ‘do exist’.
With universities, however, there is no accountability mechanism in place. Managers can therefore participate in institutional discrimination, misconduct, even illegality, since no external body currently has the power, remit (or even desire, as would seem from the Nottingham University case – mentioned below) to hold them to account for such actions.
With this in mind, the fact universities have been given the responsibility of reporting extremists and suspected terrorists to the police is highly worrisome and raises a number of important questions. For instance: what checks and balances exist to ensure universities do not merely hand over any and every Muslim to the police on the merest of ‘terrorism’ or ‘extremism’ suspicions?
The anti-terror arrests of May 2008 at the University of Nottingham are a case in point. Substantial evidence collected to date seems to confirm no checks and balances were in place, nor any incentives provided, to ensure innocent people are not reported to the police. What is also clear from the Nottingham University case is that no mechanisms were present to ensure management acted ethically, fairly or transparently. In essence, an attitude of complete unaccountability was in place.
The Nottingham ‘Terror Arrests’
The arrest of a Masters student and a member of staff at the University of Nottingham in May 2008 as suspected terrorists took place after the Registrar and the Deputy Head of Security reported the staff member to police. This was after they had discovered two academic journal articles and one primary document on his office computer. All had been sent by the Masters student for academic research and were available through the university’s own library.
Three years later, the fallout from the university’s decision to call the police before doing proper checks continues. In April 2011, Rod Thornton, a terrorism and counterinsurgency expert at the University of Nottingham, wrote a whistleblowing academic paper criticising the university’s senior management for engaging in serious misconduct and discrimination toward the two arrestees, both during their time in custody and after they were released without charge .
Since his paper was published, Thornton has been swiftly suspended and continues to be the subject of disciplinary procedures. However, his case is an important one, especially due to the fact (as documented in his paper) that his numerous attempts to have matters addressed internally and to hold the university management to account for malpractice and discrimination had been ignored and rebuffed at every step.
His reference materials - notably confidential internal governmental, police and university communications (leaked via Unileaks) - reveal how internal complaints procedures  and direct contact with the Vice-Chancellor  failed to bring a resolution. The documents also show how his attempts to hold the management to account through the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) , the Parliamentary Ombudsman , the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills , the Equality and the Human Rights Commission  failed repeatedly, often at the first hurdle.
All external bodies, including the Parliamentary Ombudsman which claims to hold public institutions to account, stated that they did not have the mandate or remit to investigate universities. In other words, universities are publically accountable bodies without anyone officially having the remit or mandate to hold them to account were they to be involved in any form of misconduct, discrimination or unethical behaviour. In fact, universities can only be investigated if allegations of financial impropriety arise.
When Thornton reported the Registrar to the police for being involved in an act of criminality, namely manipulating and falsifying police and Crown Prosecution Statements, Nottinghamshire Police refused to investigate his allegations . To prevent precisely the types of occurrences that occurred at Nottingham, all British universities, including Nottingham University, were issued with governmental guidance that advised university managers on what procedures should be followed if ‘extremist’ or ‘terrorist’ related issues arose on campus. However, as the Nottingham case shows, such advice was ignored when the decision to contact police was made . However, because no external body has the mandate to investigate universities, the management at Nottingham University cannot be held to account for ignoring governmental guidance. Universities, as Thornton argues, ‘are laws unto themselves’ .
Universities have now been flagged up as incubators of terrorism and extremism, and have therefore been selected to be part of a small group of institutions obliged to work with the State and the police to prevent the spread of extremism and terrorism.
While fighting crime is an obligation on every person, the detection of non-illegal, “radical” views should not be the duty of inexperienced university managers and administrators. The Nottingham case and its continuing fallout highlights that when a ‘preventative’ mindset seeps into the attitude of unqualified university managers, innocent people are needlessly and wrongly labelled as terrorists and extremists.
However, the fact that universities cannot be held to account for their actions, as the Nottingham case highlights, opens the door for serious, even criminal, misconduct, to go unpunished. The Prevent strategy is problematic in all its dimensions, but selecting university managers, bureaucrats and administrators to specifically work within a highly controversial and politically-sensitive context shows how British universities have been transformed from cosmopolitan milieus of opposing ideas and beliefs to highly securitised institutions that are committed, not to academic freedom, freedom of thought or debate, but to detecting and spying on students, simply because they “may”, one day, become terrorists or extremists.
At the same time, these institutions are free to engage in any conduct, including discriminatory, knee-jerk or wrongful actions, without the worry of ever being held to account for their actions. This is the unspoken, but all too-real, flipside to ‘Prevent on Campus’.
Rizwaan Sabir is a PhD student at the University of Strathclyde where he is researching UK government policy toward Muslims since 9/11 and 7/7. He was the MA student that was arrested at Nottingham University in May 2008 and released without charge.
 Gardham, Duncan (2011) ‘Universities ‘complacent’ over Islamic radicals, Theresa May warns’, The Telegraph, 05 June, accessed 02 July 2011
 Home Office (2011) ‘The Prevent Strategy’. Accessed 30 June 2011
 HM Government (2011) ‘Prevent Strategy’, June 2011,< http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/publications/counter-terrorism/prevent/prevent-strategy/prevent-strategy-review?view=Binary>, accessed 02 July 2011, pp.2-3; all further page references cited in the text in this article are from this report.
 Glees, Anthony and Pope, Chris (2005) ‘When Students Turn to Terror: Terrorist and Extremist Activity on British Campuses’, The Social Affairs Unit, London
 O’Neill, Sean (2011) ‘Campus anti-terror warning is threat to freedom of speech, says university chief’, The Times, 17 June, p. 30
 Thornton, Rod (2011) ‘Radicalisation at universities or radicalisation by universities?: How a student’s use of a library book became a “major Islamist plot”’, paper prepared for British International Studies Association Manchester Conference, S.W.A.N-Unileaks edition, April, accessed 02 July 2011
 Thompson, Chris (2009) ‘Allegation of Malpractice against Dr Paul Greatrix by Dr Rod Thornton’, 11 November, accessed 01 July 2011
 Greenaway, David (2008) ‘Email of Vice-Chancellor Professor David Greenaway to Dr Rod Thornton’, 9 October, 16:46, accessed 01 July 2011
 Greaves, Paul (2010) ‘Letter from Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) to Dr Rod Thornton, 8 November 2010, accessed 01 July 2011
 Biswas, Anthony (2010) ‘Letter of Parliamentary and Health Ombudsman to Vernon Coaker and Rizwaan Sabir’, 19 October, accessed 01 July 2011
 Lowery, Joe (2009) ‘Letter of Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) to Dr Rod Thornton, December, accessed 01 July 2011
 Thornton, Rod (2010a) ‘Letter of Dr Rod Thornton to Chief Constable of Nottingham Constabulary, D/Insp Andrew Batemen and Human Rights Commission [with police names removed]’, 18 March, accessed 02 July 2010
 Thornton, Rod (2010b) ‘Letter of Dr Rod Thornton to Chief Constable of Nottinghamshire Police’, 29 April, accessed 02 July 2010
 S.W.A.N (2011) ‘What Risk Assessment?’, accessed 02 July 2011
 Thornton (2011), p.4