Education & Family

Education is antidote to extremism, says new Oxford head

Louise Richardson Image copyright Other
Image caption Louise Richardson says education can challenge the "oversimplified" arguments of violent extremists

Education is the most effective "antidote" to violent extremism, says the incoming head of Oxford University.

Louise Richardson said terror groups were characterised by a "highly oversimplified view of the world".

Prof Richardson, whose academic expertise is in terror and counter-terrorism, was speaking at a British Council conference in London.

But she argued that "radical ideas belong in a university" and should be debated and challenged.

Last week, Prof Richardson was nominated as the next head of Oxford University. She will be the first female vice chancellor of the university since the post was created in 1230.

'Combustible combination'

At the British Council's Going Global international education conference, she spoke on a panel examining universities and radicalisation and extremism.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Garissa University in Kenya was attacked by al Shabaab militants

Prof Richardson argued that "education is the best possible antidote to radicalisation", because it challenged the "black and white" views of extremists, undermining "simplification and certitude".

But she said there was a "crucial distinction between radical ideas and incitement to violence" and that it was "imperative that we have a place where radical ideas can be expressed and challenged".

Prof Richardson, currently head of St Andrews University, also argued that even though improving education could help to reduce extremism, well-educated people were still capable of violent extremism.

This could become a particularly potent problem where young people had been educated but were then frustrated by a lack of jobs and opportunities.

"The most combustible combination is an educated workforce and an economy that can't allow them to realise their expectations," said Prof Richardson.

She described the terror attacks on universities - such as at Garissa University in Kenya earlier this year - as a new and "very sobering phenomenon".

Campus extremism

Also speaking on the panel was Bill Rammell, vice chancellor of Bedfordshire University and former universities minister, who had tackled concerns about campus radicalisation in the wake of the London tube bombs in 2005.

Mr Rammell said there was a lack of knowledge about how radical views crossed over into violent extremism.

"We don't understand enough about the process of what moves someone beyond that boundary to commit acts of violence," he said.

Universities had to respond to challenges such as extremist groups trying to recruit students, he said.

Mr Rammell said it was "reasonable" to expect universities to have policies about the material allowed on campus and "to have an effective whistle-blower procedure if a student feels that they are being groomed by violent extremists".

But he also warned that it would be "counter productive" to block open campus debate about radical ideas, because that would "feed the narrative of victimhood".

Marie Breen-Smyth, chair in international politics at the University of Surrey, said responses to terror tended to exaggerate the threat.

She said that with her own students she examined how transport systems provided examples of very different responses to a perceived threat of terrorism.

While air travel had adopted what she called the "rituals" of searches, rail travel had emphasised using the vigilance of the public.

The challenge was "how to keep people safe without scaring people into unnecessary measures".

Mohammed Farouk, vice chancellor of the Federal University, Kashere in Nigeria, said the threat of Boko Haram meant that there were now metal detectors on the gates of the university.

More on this story