Byline: Tim Ross Education Correspondent
RADICAL speakers must be allowed to address students on campus in the interests of free speech, says the head of the college attended by the alleged Detroit jet bomber.
Malcolm Grant, President and Provost of University College London, said it was not the job of universities to act as "policemen" and prevent students becoming terrorists.
He criticised the "hysteria" whipped up in the aftermath of the failed Christmas Day attack and dismissed the idea that universities are "hotbeds of extremism".
Professor Grant spoke to the Evening Standard as he launched an inquiry into Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's time at UCL, amid claims that the Nigerian began to be radicalised while a student in London.
Professor Grant has also been appointed to lead a national review into how universities work with the police and security services to try to prevent violent extremism.
Abdulmutallab, president of UCL's student Islamic society during his three years at the college, is accused of trying to detonate explosives hidden in his underpants as a Northwest Airlines flight approached Detroit airport.
A new audio tape emerged at the weekend purporting to contain a message from Osama bin Laden praising him as a "hero". Police and the security agencies are concerned that many universities and colleges are fertile grounds for radical Islamic preachers and banned groups. The Government's Prevent strategy is aimed at identifying individuals who are showing signs of extremism.
The strategy also relies on universities themselves providing information to the authorities. But in an interview with the Standard, Professor Grant warned against eroding freedom of speech.
"We must continue to regard students as adults," he said. "We must of course ensure that universities are not converted into hotbeds of radicalisation. But this is a long way from reality. There has been so much hyperbole and hysteria whipped up around this."
He said British universities had a legal obligation -- introduced in 1986 -- to "guarantee" free speech within the law. "Campuses are and should be safe homes for controversy, argument and debate," he said, although this clearly does not extend to "incitement that could lead to terrorism".
Challenging controversial views in an open debate at university may be better than forcing preachers underground, he said. "I don't think radicalisation works by radical preachers coming in and acting like drill sergeants recruiting into a group." An inquiry led by Dame Fiona Caldicott, Principal of Somerville College, Oxford, will examine whether Abdulmutallab began to be radicalised at UCL. It will also consider the way student societies operate.
The national review Professor Grant is chairing on behalf of the vice-chancellors' group Universities UK will consider whether academics and the security services are working well enough together.
"We (British universities) all have working relations with the security services," said Professor Grant. "We must, however, dispel any misapprehension that universities can substitute for the security services. We are not capable of acting as policemen. …