MPs enter fray as debate over academic freedom hots up

March 23, 2007

Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, launched an impassioned defence of academic freedom and campus free speech this week in a parliamentary debate sparked by a series of articles in The Times Higher .

In a House of Commons adjournment debate on academic freedom, Mr Rammell said: "Higher education, by its very nature, is concerned with free debate, challenging established principles and pushing the boundaries of conventional thought.

"The freedom to engage in robust but civilised argument and the willingness of people to have their ideas challenged and changed are at the heart of the educational experience," he said.

"Academic freedom is a fundamental principle of our higher education system. It goes wider than freedom of speech because it includes freedom to pursue research and to publish."

The debate was called by Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford. He said: "There are more and more attacks on and, in addition, threats to academic freedom in our universities, including the freedom to research topics of one's choice, the freedom to lecture and give academic treatises on subjects of one's choosing within one's academic field, and the freedom of expression in and of itself on university campuses."

Dr Harris cited the student petition against Oxford University's employment of David Coleman, the academic's association with the immigration think-tank MigrationWatch UK, and the cancellation last week by Leeds University of a lecture by Matthias Kuntzel, on "Hitler's legacy: Anti-Semitism in the Middle East".

He then referred to last week's Times Higher article about concerns that Canterbury Christ Church and Chester universities' Anglican religious ethos was restricting academic freedom. "The paper has been running a series of articles exploring threats to academic freedom, and I commend it on doing so," he said.

Mr Rammell praised Oxford for defending Dr Coleman, and said he could not comment on the case at Leeds. But he added: "If someone is advocating a lawful view, the university authorities have a responsibility to facilitate the discussion or meeting."

With regard to the Church universities, Mr Rammell said: "I am aware of concerns about those institutions' articles of governance... academic freedom is clearly enshrined in law and that overarching legal framework upholds freedom of speech."

"Academic staff must have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to voice controversial and some times unpopular opinions without placing themselves in jeopardy."


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