Happy to let someone tell you what to think?

July 28, 2006

Academics refuse to wake up to the fact that their freedom is being eroded. Dennis Hayes sounds some alarm bells

I don't enjoy losing. But the possibility of defeat won't stop me putting statements in support of academic freedom to the vote - even to an electorate of academics. I've lost two important votes defending this most significant of values - one recently, one some years ago - and I know I would certainly lose a third should a similar poll be held today. The reason is that most academics see nothing especially important in academic freedom. It's just one value among many. The calls to sack lecturer Frank Ellis after his comments about race and IQ, and to consider a boycott of Israeli universities, saw other values - anti-racism and support for oppressed peoples - override academic freedom. Academics are to blame for not opposing its marginalisation and defending it as a special value that defines the university inside and outside the classroom.

The legal right is "freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom". This seemed a liberal and only slightly qualified expression of academic freedom when it was added to the Education Reform Bill by Lord Jenkins. Alongside it went the right to "put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions" and protection for lecturers from "losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institutions".

Freedom "within the law" is the bit academics forget too easily. At the time it appeared irrelevant. But with more and more restrictions on what can be said, not only academics with extreme and reactionary views will fall foul of the legal test but also those who think religion false, those who demand the creation of an Islamic state or support what the state considers "terrorism" or soon, perhaps, even those who want to do stem-cell or animal research.

This brings me to my most recent lost vote. My university, Canterbury Christ Church, is one of only two British institutions that have further restrictions on academic freedom. The other is Chester, also a church foundation. The qualification we have is that academic freedom does not extend to seeking to undermine the religious "ethos" of the university or, more worryingly, any "code of conduct" based on it. At a governors'

meeting, I proposed its removal. I lost by a margin of two to one. One governor argued that the rule simply did not matter as it was never used.

But it's still there and the message is "there are some things that cannot be challenged". It could be argued that you might expect such restrictions from a church foundation. But other such institutions do not have them, and one might expect even more of a commitment to truth and wisdom than from some secular and market-oriented universities.

If you look at the websites of many new universities, you will find no commitment to academic freedom. Instead, there is a selection of "new Labour" values. Many require staff and students to commit to principles such as equal opportunity, respect for diversity and social inclusion. I have encountered no opposition to the imposition of these mainstream distortions of values that emerged from the struggle for equality, access to universal human rights and the fight against poverty and oppression. A cynic could argue that parading new Labour principles is good for funding applications, as is the widespread commitment to "environmentalism". But such a stance ignores the question of whether it is right that universities impose values - a question that is more obvious when considering the imposition by church institutions. Sadly, most academics and students are only too willing to have the state, or a state-funded body, impose safe versions of political struggles. I remain as uncompromisingly against the state and its institutions telling me what to think and what to argue as I am against church foundations doing so.

And so to my other lost vote. I once spoke in favour of adding academic freedom to lecturers' union Natfhe's aims at our annual conference. I lost that vote by about 300 to three. It is pointless worrying about losing votes after a debate. But what I mind is not being able to argue for academic freedom and being told that it must be put aside as it would open me or my university to charges of anti-Semitism, racism, supporting terrorism, irreligious activity or environmental destruction. If, because of this, it becomes increasingly difficult to defend academic freedom, we will see something worse than universities becoming factories producing commodified knowledge. We will see them becoming political machines churning out right-thinking citizens.

Dennis Hayes is head, Centre for Professional Learning at Canterbury Christ Church University, and joint president of the University and College Union.

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