Peers protest at threat to academic freedom

June 2, 1995

Peers joined forces with vice chancellors last week to fend off a new threat to academic freedom.

Members of the House of Lords used the second reading of the Disability Discrimination Bill on Monday to voice concern about Government plans to "smuggle in" new powers over university provision "on the back of a worthy cause".

Their outcry followed objections made to the Department for Education by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, after the DFE revealed its intention to introduce an amendment to the Bill "to provide the secretary of state with an unambiguous power to require the higher education funding council to seek policy statements from universities and colleges covering their arrangements for access . . . for disabled students".

Lord Beloff, a Conservative peer, warned that the amendment posed a threat to the principles of academic freedom established in Section 68 of the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act.

"The genuine and important needs of disabled students are being used, on occasion, for the Government to go back on a decision reached by Parliament that the one thing the funding council may not do is to place conditions on its grants affecting academic matters," he told the House.

Lord Beloff said there was no objection to the substance of the amendment, since universities already publicised their arrangements for disabled students.

But he added: "The difficulty is that once a provision of this kind is overridden on a worthy cause, what will stop the Government from coming forward and providing means of overriding it for some less worthy cause?" Baroness Seear, a Liberal Democrat, agreed that it was unnecessary to introduce new legislation to gain the universities' co-operation over improving standards of provision for disabled people.

"It is particularly unfortunate to alienate the education institutions by making unnecessary requirements in order to reach the standard," she said.

A spokesman for the CVCP said vice chancellors saw the proposed amendment as "the thin end of a very thick wedge". He added: "It would be shameful for the Government to be seen to be trying to claw back powers on the back of a worthy cause."

Deborah Cooper, director of Skill, the national bureau for students with disabilities, said there was a need for more monitoring of provision, but the amendment should be rewritten so that it did not pose a threat to academic freedom.

"Institutions at the moment are doing quite a lot out of the goodness of their hearts, and not because there is a framework to encourage that," she said.

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