Debate rages despite 'advice'

March 16, 2007

Manchester University's equality and diversity guidance has provoked claims that the university wants academics to avoid controversy, writes Melanie Newman.

The guidance, posted on the university website, reminds academics that intellectual debate must be within the law and points to incitement to racial hatred as an example. It adds: "There is also a need to balance academic freedom with the recognition that some issues are extremely contentious, even if they are not unlawful.

"Academic staff should be mindful of issues that may be controversial, and should approach debate around these areas with care and consideration. For one thing, students who are busy reacting emotionally to a contentious issue may be less likely to engage in the effective learning you intend."

Dennis Hayes, founder of the campaign group Academics for Academic Freedom (AFAF), said: "This is how academic freedom gets quietly shut down." The message was very clear, he said: "Don't upset the students."

A spokesman for Manchester said the guidance had been produced after the 2004 merger with the University of Manchester Institute of Technology. "The University is committed to ensuring freedom of speech within the law," he said.

Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon and a campaigner for freedom of speech, said: "Manchester's guidance taken together with the attacks on David Coleman by Oxford University students and on Edzard Ernst by the Prince of Wales point to a worrying trend to restrict freedom of speech."

Students called for the sacking of Professor Coleman, professor of demography at Oxford, because of his views on immigration and his involvement with think-tank MigrationWatch.

Professor Ernst, professor of complementary medicine at Exeter University's Peninsula Medical School, has claimed that Prince Charles's private secretary complained to his employer after he criticised a report commissioned by the Prince. The university cleared Professor Ernst after an investigation.

Last month, Richard Reynolds, a philosophy, politics and economics student at UEA, launched Student Academics for Academic Freedom. He said the move was in response to student campaigns to oust controversial lecturers and to the National Union of Students' policy of refusing to give a platform to groups such as the British National Party and fundamentalist Islamic organisations.

"In calling for the suppression of opinions these people believe that they are sticking up for students, but I believe they are damaging for lecturers, students and all of society. The suggestion that students aren't capable of handling dissent, argument or opinions that differ from theirs demeans them."

Commenting on the Oxford petition to oust Professor Coleman he said: "I wouldn't support his views on immigration but the man is an Oxford professor - he is an expert and has a right to argue a point."

Suzy Dean, a politics undergraduate at the London School of Economics and a SAFAF signatory, added: "If groups like the BNP are so wrong about what they defend then why not win the argument with them, and win over some of their supporters in the process? The tendency to block controversial discussions in universities does more to elevate the babble that most of these groups spout than it does to convince anybody that they're wrong."

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