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How universities will beat extremism

Professor Lawrence Phillips, Head of Regent’s American College London (RACL).

The world feels like an increasingly frightening place for young people. With last year punctuated by a series of horrendous terrorist acts, 2016 already appears to be following suit. Similarly the outbreak of intolerant anti-refugee and immigration politics continues to embody the West at its worst as public comments undoubtedly shape the opinions – and potentially prejudices – of the next generation.

The aftermath of events such as 2015’s Paris attacks highlight the need to combat extremism and develop young people’s resilience to harmful ideologies while preventing them from being radicalised.

Extremism is more than stubbornness or a general intolerance towards others. It includes holding views which are at odds with the core beliefs of society. Radicalisation is where people adopt an extreme position in terms of politics and religion, a violent extremist ideology, or move to violent action in support of their beliefs. Resilience is demonstrated by bouncing back from adversity and overcoming negative influences that block emotional wellbeing and achievement.

It is vital that universities take a lead in combatting the spread of misinformation, radicalisation and fear. This is only achieved when students can operate in a safe environment that allows them to ask questions and express ideas without feeling unwelcome or threatened because of race, religion, sexual orientation or any aspects attributed to minority groups.

It is difficult to avoid arguments for utilitarian education and thinking in reaction to terrorism and inflammatory public debate. From austerity-driven cutbacks insisting universities focus purely on employment as an end goal, through to extremist political views on the plight of refugees – our fractured political arena is slipping into simplistic and sometimes offensive positions, rather than providing open and reasoned argument.

Education offers the key ingredients needed to tackle ill-informed thinking and potential radicalisation and evidence-based teaching and interventions are widely recognised as solutions for building resilience to extremism in young people, countering push-pull factors such as low self-esteem, lacking a sense of achievement or feeling out of place in society.

Well-designed education programmes should:

  • Feel enjoyable to those taking part and be different from ‘normal’ classroom lessons, featuring discussion, group work and external facilitators while not shying away from controversial issues
  • Set tangible goals to build a sense of ownership and sustain involvement through creative projects, such as producing an online report or film
  • Be young person-centred and young person-led. Peer educators offer a sense of empowerment and help raise self-esteem
  • Produce something ‘real’ to encourage young people to work together collaboratively, and foster transferable skills

A liberal education delivered in a truly international environment may be the answer, providing the benefit of a variety of different stimuli, subjects and tools for discussion, while dialogue is centred on the thoughts, ideas, and questions of the students themselves.

Effective learning is underpinned by respect for other people’s views, regardless of whether their opinions might be opposing or contrary. No method is perfect and of course emotions can always threaten to overtake discussion. This is the beauty of democracy - it’s not about agreeing a specific system, it’s about agreeing a cultural and intellectually safe community that allows individuals to express their thoughts.