Education is the best possible antidote to radicalisation, Professor Louise Richardson told the British Council’s ‘Going Global’ conference in London today.
Prof Richardson, who was recently nominated as the next Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, said: “Any terrorist I have ever met through my academic work had a highly over simplified view of the world, which they saw in black and white terms. Education robs you of that simplification and certitude. Education is the best possible to antidote to radicalisation.”
Prof Richardson, currently Principal and Vice-Chancellor at the University of St Andrews, was speaking on a panel discussing radicalisation and extremism in universities in the UK and beyond. She told the audience of international higher education leaders that alienation is an unsatisfying explanation as to why young people join terrorist groups.
“The most combustible situation is lack of economic opportunities for an educated workforce. The great value of universities is that we have people with the time and expertise to explore these issues,” she added.
In a wide-ranging discussion on radicalisation in universities and counter-terrorism measures, the audience was also told that threat levels are being exaggerated.
Professor Marie Breen-Smyth, Chair in International Politics, University of Surrey said, “There is an exaggeration of threat. Road accidents are much more of a threat to society than terrorism will ever be, even in Northern Ireland. Threat exaggeration serves a particular interest in society to make money out of counter- terrorism and security. That’s not to say there isn’t a threat, there is, and we need to be concerned about it, but let’s get it into perspective.”
Professor Breen-Smyth told the audience that the key problem lies with violence, and not radical ideas. “I would put education in schools and universities about violence and alternatives to violence. We need to equip young people with an understanding of how to organise campaigns and impact on their worlds in a non-violent and democratic way.”
It was vital, the panel agreed, that radical thought was allowed and fostered in universities. Prof Richardson pointed out that “The idea that the world was round was once a radical idea. It’s imperative we have a place that ideas can be challenged, and universities are the perfect place for that.”
Professor Mohammed Farouk, Vice-Chancellor, Federal University, Kashere, Nigeria, said “In my experience in Nigeria in the 1970s it was almost a rite of passage for students to become radicalised, to take on issues of social justice. Today, ‘radicalisation’ now becomes equated with terrorism, violence. I see radicalisation as more of a process that challenges the status quo, rejects the status quo and takes on existing ideas in society. Radicalisation needs to be taken away from terrorism.”
The panel agreed that not enough is known about what causes an individual to become radicalised and turn to violence. Bill Rammell, Vice-Chancellor at Bedford University and former UK Minister of State for Higher Education (2005-2008) said: “Education is most effective counter force to extremism, but it’s not the case that if you educate somebody you are in the clear and they don’t go down the path of violence.”