Peace, love and improved ratings

April 21, 2006

Racially and culturally prejudiced academics are bad for university research ratings, according to the vice-chancellor who drafted guidelines on promoting good campus relations.

Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of Luton University, said that the freedom of thought necessary to sustain good research was possible only if academics showed each other respect and tolerance.

Professor Ebdon, who was a keynote speaker at last week's Association of University Administrators' annual conference, chaired the group that recently updated guidance on campus relations for Universities UK, the Equality Challenge Unit and the Standing Conference of Principals.

Administrators attending the conference, held at Queen's University Belfast, asked how they could get academics to take seriously the issue of policies intended to foster and preserve tolerance.

Professor Ebdon said: "The practical advice is that if you are a research-based university and you believe in evidence-based research, then it is very important to preserve freedom of thought. And the only way you can do that is within a climate of respect and tolerance.

"This is for every university and not just very diverse and multicultural universities. We do know that there is a small minority of people who import prejudices that are prevalent in society into universities, and they need to be openly debated."

Professor Ebdon said all institutions had equal opportunities and anti-discrimination policies, but there was a question about how these were disseminated.

He said that Luton included cultural awareness in induction programmes for new staff and ensured that its curriculum was culturally sensitive. It also held events to celebrate multiculturalism.

Even research-intensive institutions that might consider themselves monocultural are unlikely to be because they will have significant numbers of international students.

Students from black and minority ethnic backgrounds account for 16 per cent of all higher education students in England, and about 9 per cent of staff are from black and ethnic minority backgrounds.

The essential starting point to build good campus relations is a thorough understanding of anti-hate crime legislation, Professor Ebdon said.

A spokesman for the Association of University Teachers said: "Academic freedom is incredibly important - but within the parameters of the Race Relations Amendment Act. You can't have a situation where students or lecturers are fearful on campus."

The AUT is relieved to see key concessions made in the Terrorism Bill, which had been seen as a threat to academic freedom and likely to leave academics and librarians open to prosecution through their work.

"People are going to talk about terrorism, and one of the best ways to counteract it is to understand it better," the AUT spokesman said.

Universities should have clear policy on ensuring that proper academic debate could take place and could always refer to the RRA Act for guidance, he added.

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