On the 19th of March, 13 students and one member of staff at King’s College London (KCL) had their university ID cards deactivated, rendering them unable to access their university during a visit by the Queen.

The case highlighted the extent to which a culture of securitisation has taken hold at British universities.

The politically motivated nature of the bans elicited a fierce response from students, staff and media, and led to an internal review.

The review report was released yesterday. Despite the tone of regret and soul-searching that permeates the report, what stands out is how much the management at KCL seek to implicitly normalise the culture of security on campus, even calling for further control.

An attempt to shift the blame to security while dodging the core issue of securitisation

As the report states, the watchlist of students was collated by university security following a number of prior protests, for the purposes of dragging those activists through disciplinary processes.

This list was then used as the basis for banning the students/staff member, as well as being – potentially unlawfully – shared with the Metropolitan Police.

The report takes pains to diffuse responsibility on to the (outsourced) security department, painting it as a case of a lone department stepping beyond boundaries, whilst casting the university management as blameless, and as seeking to reconcile with the student’s union.

What the report fails to account for is the way that the securitisation agenda at KCL has been imposed from the top-down.

A culture of control and political bureaucracy

King’s is a university that has become notorious for its hostility towards student protest, with Principal Ed Byrne actively attacking the annual Israeli Apartheid Week in a meeting with the Board of Deputies of British Jews last year.

Byrne and senior management also pushed through the censorious IHRA definition of antisemitism as well as guidelines to stifle protests on campuses – including bans on certain forms of demonstration.

King’s was also the university which hit headlines a few years ago once it came to light that it was monitoring and recording all internal email accounts under its implementation of the Prevent duty.

Not to mention, the university is also deeply implicated in the arms trade with links to the firms that supply regimes such as Saudi and Israel, whilst its Department of War Studies and International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation are well connected to the security establishment and “contribute directly to the fight against terrorism and radicalisation“.

That is to say, KCL contributes intellectual cover to repressive counter-terror technologies. These repressive measures are then re-purposed to securitise the university, and to monitor the students challenging its unethical business dealings.

Therefore what we have is a university that waxes triumphantly on its fondness for ‘Free Speech’, whilst instituting unprecedented measures to squeeze the right to protest.

The report doesn’t come close to addressing this deep hypocrisy.

Report goes even further to recommend tighter regulation of student affairs

Rather than confront this, the report  goes even further in justifying the securitisation on campus, by recommending  that the university take measures to limit the number of ‘high risk’ events taking place at the university in the future.

If implemented, this recommendation would undoubtedly impact the ability of dissenting groups, as well as the student groups like the ones to which the banned students belonged, , from organising on campus.

In light of this recommendation,  the university’s attempts to offload responsibility onto the security department in isolation collapse.

Rather, it is clear the management-led securitisation agenda has instilled a culture within the university to which security are responding, and they alone are not responsible for causing it.

 

Co-opting the notion of ‘Free Speech’ strips it of its full meaning

This incident at King’s highlights the way that the policies and infrastructure of securitisation connect to marginalise student activity.

It is by no means exclusive to King’s – the encroachment of policing and security tactics in universities has been a long time coming, catalysed and excused by a toxic climate of “counter-terrorism” that pervades the rest of society.

PREVENT is one core component of this agenda, but it cannot be considered in isolation from physical infrastructure security like CCTV and swipe card access, as well as policies such as the monitoring of Tier 2/4 international students/staff, and the use of ‘Free Speech’ policies as a means of regulating political activity on campuses.

Indeed the report points to the fact that some of the students were monitored on the basis of potentially violating ‘Free Speech’ codes, thus making them liable to sanction.

Free Speech, decoupled from other rights to organise, can now be used to attack the ability to organise – in defence of Free Speech.

This is clearly an absurd arrangement.

This has been enabled by the institutionalisation of the notion of ‘Free Speech’ into the hands of university bureaucrats, whilst Free Speech has been shrunk back into the more literalist sense – as merely the right to vocalise one’s perspective in the so-called “marketplace of ideas”, and only then in ways that do not ruffle those in power.

It is no longer about the right to organise and challenge oppression.

 

We need to talk about real change – now

It is this aspect that is so often elided in the contemporary ‘Free Speech wars’ in universities: the fact that the policies and legal architecture of universities are increasingly being turned towards surveillance and against student activism.

This underscores the fact that the contradictions between students and university management in British universities are only growing sharper, and that universities are becoming more and more hostile to student activism.

Feeble reconciliation exercises and superficial reports will do nothing to resolve these contradictions, and will merely kick the issue into the shadows for another day.

What is needed now is a concerted effort by students – and civil society at large – to uproot the culture of bureaucracy and securitisation within universities, and secure the right for students to organise and protest – even disruptively – on their campuses.

How to do this should be at the centre of discussions on the topic of civil liberties in education spaces.

 

Image courtesy of King’s College London

 

(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)