Student vetting casts human rights shadow

Civil liberties lawyers called in over universities’ anti-terrorism procedures

Universities that vet their students to guard against the threat of terrorism could be flouting basic human rights and academic freedoms. Under a scheme run by the Foreign Office, universities carrying out research of the “highest concern” can take part in a voluntary vetting scheme which checks out the credentials of postgraduate students from “countries of concern”.

Although there are now calls for the vetting process to be made compulsory, particularly in potentially dangerous research areas such as biotechnology, many fear it could break human rights laws. Gary Attle, a partner and head of Mills & Reeve‘s university business group, has been contacted by a number of universities concerned about the impact their anti-terror measures will have on academic and personal freedoms.

“One of the difficult issues is the disclosure of information to enforcement agencies,” Attle said. “Questions about the right to privacy and data protection are issues to be balanced against the protection of security and the investigation of crime.” Under the Terrorism Act 2000, it is an offence to support or be a member of an organisation associated with terrorism, or even to wear clothing that could arouse suspicion of terrorist involvement.

Meanwhile, under the soon-to-be-enforced Export Control Act 2002, the movement of certain goods and information is prohibited, sparking yet more fears among university staff. “This act brought concerns from academics that it might unduly restrict the exchange and movement of knowledge,” Attle said. “It does contain some provisions intended to help protect academic freedom, although these may be overridden if necessary.”