University leaders are to form a group to tackle extremism on campus, four years after the Parliamentary All-Party Inquiry into Antisemitism first recommended such a move.
The Union of Jewish Students and the Community Security Trust welcomed the new working group, but called for higher education institutions to “demonstrate leadership” and drop their previously “sluggish” approach.
Universities UK, which represents the heads of British universities, set out its plans following the failed attempt by former University College London student Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to blow up a plane on Christmas Day.
Professor Steve Smith, Universities UK president, said: “It is essential that as a society we respond rationally to the issue of extremism.”
The working group will be chaired by UCL provost Malcolm Grant, who has rejected suggestions that Abdulmutallab was radicalised while studying at the university between 2005 and 2007.
Prof Smith said there would be an effort to “ensure the protection of freedom of speech and lawful academic activities, while safeguarding students, staff and the wider community from violent extremism”.
In 2006, the Parliamentary All-Party Inquiry into Antisemitism highlighted UCL for failing to deal with “extremist elements on campus” and warned of the danger of invitations extended to hate speakers by student unions.
The inquiry recommended that vice chancellors set up a group to tackle extremism and antisemitism.
Danny Stone, director of the Parliamentary Committee Against Antisemitism, said progress had since been “extremely slow. The view of the MPs in the group is that higher education needs to look urgently at the issue of speakers coming onto campus.
“There is definitely frustration. These problems existed years ago. While there have been some improvements, I do not think in practice there has been a massive step forward… We need action.”
Former UCL JSoc president Harrison Cohen accepted that university bosses had not done enough to keep student unions and societies in check.
Now UCL’s welfare officer for students of faith, Mr Cohen said: “Malcolm Grant initially said after the bomb plot that there was no cause for concern [about extremism at UCL]. That’s very naïve. If a student is going to voice a [radical] opinion, it will be in the union or a society, not in their classes.”