Academics criticise HEA for flouting principles of intellectual freedom

The Higher Education Academy has suspended its director of research and evaluation after the publication of a letter in Times Higher Education.

Lee Harvey's letter, which he wrote in a personal capacity, criticised the National Student Survey. Academics have condemned the suspension as a restriction of academic freedom. Times Higher Education understands that Professor Harvey is accused of breaching his contract by writing a letter for publication without HEA clearance. The decision to suspend him was taken by HEA chief executive Paul Ramsden, against whom Professor Harvey had previously lodged a grievance on an unrelated matter.

Earlier in his career Professor Ramsden was involved with the pioneering student experience survey in Australia, a forerunner to the UK NSS. Professor Harvey described the NSS in his letter as a "hopelessly inadequate improvement tool".

Today, in another letter to Times Higher Education, four academics condemn the HEA's handling of the case, which they say is a "breach of academic freedom".

Lyn Fawcett, chair of the University and College Union higher education committee in Northern Ireland, said he would consider quitting as a member of the HEA if Professor Harvey were not reinstated.

He said: "One has to question the integrity of the HEA if they are not prepared to allow someone who is a specialist in an area to have an expert opinion. It also raises questions about not just academic freedom but personal freedom. That an individual should not be allowed to express an opinion in a personal capacity outside of work is a disgrace."

Another fellow of the HEA, speaking anonymously, said: "You don't shut down a debate that has never been had. There's an atmosphere of intellectual terror surrounding this that is indicative of how afraid people are to speak out about anything."

Bernard Longden, professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University, said: "We talk about the need for higher education to be a 'critical community'. Is this the most effective way that it can handle criticism?" Sean Mackney, HEA deputy chief executive, refused to comment on the suspension or the prior grievance between Professor Harvey and Professor Ramsden. He said: "The academy is a strong believer in the freedom of academics to publish and say what they wish about any matter. It would not be proper for me to comment on (this case) further."

However, a member of HEA staff, speaking anonymously, said there was a "great deal of unease" in the organisation, adding: "If, as we understand, the suspension is retaliation to the letter, then it is absolutely ridiculous and actually very damaging to the academy."

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