Malcolm Grant has the serene demeanour that might be expected of the head of one of London’s most prestigious universities. But mention the Government’s latest counter-terrorism strategy and its insistence that universities must do more to look for potential extremists, and his mood changes.
“That was just stupid,” he says, with a look of exasperation on his face as he rounds on ministers for their accompanying suggestion that previous inaction has allowed campuses to become breeding grounds for terrorists.
“It was stupid to say that of those convicted of terrorism offences, more than 30 per cent had been to university, and to suggest that there was a link. It is simply a reflection of the fact that a large proportion of the population have been to university. There seems to be no evidence of a causal connection between attendance at university and engagement in religiously inspired violence.”
As the provost of University College London, Professor Grant has particular reason to have thought carefully about the issue. One of UCL’s former students, the alleged “underpants bomber”, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, is due to go on trial in the US today charged with trying to blow up a transatlantic airliner as it flew into Detroi on Christmas Day 2009.
Subsequent investigations by MI5 and Scotland Yard have suggested that the Nigerian-born student, who studied mechanical engineering at UCL between 2005 and 2008, did not engage in terrorist activity until later, when he moved to Yemen and came under the influence of Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical al Qaeda preacher killed in a US drone strike last month.
Ministers singled out the case, however, when unveiling their updated “Prevent” counter-terrorism strategy earlier this year and claimed that Abdulmutallab, who served as president of UCL’s Islamic Society, had been “attracted to and influenced by extremist ideology while at university”, making him an example of the type of student that campus leaders should do more to look out for.