In no position to talk
I saw in this morning’s Guardian that a new government report has been published, stating that extremist organisations are operating across the nation's campuses and pose a serious threat to national security. Disturbing to have it confirmed, but not really surprising news.
I was, however, mildly astonished as I read on and discovered that the UK education secretary Ruth Kelly yesterday ordered University vice-chancellors to clamp down on student extremists.
"Institutions have a duty to support the moderate majority as they study, to ensure that those students are not harassed intimidated or pressured,” she said.
Does this mean that she’s asked them to ban Opus Dei, the extreme Catholic group whose meetings she’s known to have attended and which she claims lends her “spiritual support”? After all, they’ve been known to recruit members from Universities around the world... and if the claims of ex-members like Maria Del Carmen Tapia (you can buy her book here, it’s a bracing read) harassment, intimidation and pressure are their stocks in trade.
Had Ruth Kelly had her road to Damascus moment and realised that extreme religious groups are a danger to young minds and should be kept as far away from education (ahem) as possible?
I was astounded … and then quickly deflated when I realised that she didn’t mean all unhealthy and violent extremists. Just the “terrorist” ones (which should naturally be read as a thinly veiled euphemism for “Islamic”). Opus Dei, with their past record of active member support for institutionalised state terror and brutal mass murdering regimes such as Franco’s in Spain and Pinochet’s in Chile, presumably don’t count.
In fact, as I delved deeper I realised that Kelly was actually advocating a line that sounds entirely in keeping with Opus Dei’s past record (albeit with a New Labour twist). She wanted, as the Times put it, vice-chancellors to “spy on” student extremists. That sounds much more like the right hymn book. One that even Opus Dei would think twice about proscribing, or as they prefer to put it, advising their members NOT to read.
Kelly also had a dig at free expression. “Freedom of speech”, she said, “does not mean unacceptable behaviour.”
…and this kind of uncontrolled talk should not be tolerated:
“I believe that higher education institutions need to identify and confront unacceptable behaviour on their premises and within their communities," she said.
Yesterday’s words once again highlight the conflict of interests in Kelly’s position as education secretary and her association with Opus Dei.
How can she claim that “extremists” are bad –and should in fact be reported to the police – when she herself is so closely tied to an extreme – and many might say extremely dangerous religious group? How can we hope for UK students to develop freely and without hindrance when our education secretary displays such disturbing authoritarian, censoring tendencies?
What’s more, on a practical level, isn’t attacking “extremists” ability to communicate just going to give them an even greater persecution complex and make them even angrier?
It's really not good enough. She's not good enough in fact. If you’re not convinced by these arguments, look at the rest of her speech. You’d think that she wants Universities to be places people go to help boost industry and generate cash rather than to actually learn.
Or look instead at the steadily increasing drop-out rates for UK schools - among the worst in the world. (That’s the world, not just Europe or America. The World).
Look at her government’s continuing insistence on bringing in a two tier (ie rich vs poor) system with city academies.
Look at the government’s plans to open more single faith religious schools (like that’s going to combat extremism and give a real understanding of the nature of faith).
Look at the comments of the head of the National Union of Teachers (Kelly is “the worst education secretary Labour has had” --- and that includes Tessa Jowell!).
Look at her continuing failure to even ensure kids get decent food, in spite of all of Jamie Oliver’s hard work and Tony Blair’s big promises.
Look at the shame of UK schooling.
If education's our future, we can expect it to be pretty bleak thanks to Ruth Kelly.