Memo to academics in the House

April 25, 1997

Scratch an academic and you will find a politician in the making. The THES has recorded that nearly 200 of those standing as candidates in the general election next Thursday have worked in higher education. No doubt there are also many university staff standing in local government elections on the same day.

But is there a conflict of interest between the worlds of academe and politics? I heard of a member of staff at an old university who wanted to stand as a local councillor. The would-be candidate's university said a conflict of interest arose from the person's job - in external relations - and their proposed political involvement. The matter is still unresolved.

The Robbins report in 1963 said two of the aims of higher education were promotion of the general powers of the mind and the advancement of learning. For Robbins, "the search for truth is an essential function of the institutions of higher education". Can teachers and other university staff with political aspirations play a full part in the Robbins ideal?

On the one hand, academics should seek to be objective and to encourage independence of mind among their students. Teaching from a committed political perspective without declaring an interest surely violates the position of authority held by an academic. Students should be treated with integrity. Without needing to be spoon-fed, the archetypal 18-year-old school-leaver is not always going to have the political sophistication to detect bias.

But for an institution to say an employee's desire to be actively involved in politics creates a conflict of interests, is at odds with the general tenor of university regulations. These often give special paid leave of absence for staff to carry out civic and public duties. Some institutions go further. The University of Liverpool, for example, allows staff elected to the House of Commons or European Parliament unpaid leave for up to two years, or the life of a single parliament. It also allows a month of paid leave for pre-election campaigning.

This laissez-faire policy towards staff involvement in politics is in keeping with the traditions of freedom of speech and academic freedom. Institutions have a legal duty to ensure freedom of speech within the law for their staff and students. The 1988 Education Reform Act grants academic staff "freedom within the law to question and to test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges".

Universities, then, should be taking the lead in our society in promoting and protecting these freedoms. To object to a member of staff taking part in lawful political activity seems contrary to the spirit of the law and to universities' tradition of autonomy.

Such a limitation would also be contrary to the long and rich history of links between universities and politics. For nearly 350 years universities had their own MPs. Until the general election of 1950 there were seven university constituencies - Oxford (two seats), Cambridge (two), London, combined English (two), Wales, combined Scottish (three) and Queen's, Belfast. They returned a total of 12 MPs, elected by graduates of the universities who had two votes - one for the constituency where they lived, and one vote for their alma mater.

In the 1945 general election, the university MPs included several practising academics. Cambridge MP Dr K. Pickthorn, was president of Corpus Christi. Seven of the university MPs were independents; despite the triumph of the Labour party elsewhere, not one of them was Labour. Given the graduates' unfair perk of a double vote, and perhaps also their voting preferences, it is not surprising the university constituencies were abolished by Parliament in time for the 1950 general election.

These days universities do not have the privilege of direct representation in the House of Commons. But the stream of academics-turned-politicians, and working or retired academics who become life peers, indicates that universities are still fertile breeding grounds for parliamentarians.

In the present election, the Association of University Teachers (declaration of interest: my employer) is campaigning under the slogan, "Vote Higher Education". Members of the association (which is not affiliated to any political party) aim to remind all candidates of the importance of higher education - and that higher education policies influence a large number of voters. It has been targeting 15 universities in marginal constituencies.

The real fruit of this campaign - and of the links between higher education and politics in general - will not be seen in the results on May 1, but in the long-term higher education policies of whichever party forms the next government.

Stephen Court is a researcher with the Association ofUniversity Teachers. The views expressed are his own.

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