Scots free not to toe the line

April 29, 2005

The individual rights of staff in all Scottish universities to challenge received wisdom and express often unpopular views is now protected by law after a vote by Members of the Scottish Parliament.

The legislation, passed by the Scottish Parliament last week, means that academics involved in teaching and research in new universities and colleges will enjoy rights to academic freedom that do not apply to their colleagues in similar institutions in England. Up to now, academic freedom has been enshrined in law only for staff in old universities.

The Association of University Teachers Scotland hailed the vote as a victory, safeguarding not only academics but also other staff, such as librarians, who can be involved in teaching and research.

Tony Axon, the AUT's Scottish parliamentary officer, said: "This is excellent news for those staff in post-1992 institutions who, unlike their colleagues in the universities, had no statutory right to academic freedom.

"Once again, Scotland is leading the way and showing that devolution is working for staff and students in higher education. This is why we lent support to the campaign for a Scottish Parliament and why we continue to work with its MSPs."

The academic freedom amendment, passed as part of legislation merging the further and higher education funding councils, has also been welcomed by Universities Scotland, which represents vice-chancellors north of the border.

Its spokesman said: "The ability to challenge what's taken as acceptance of fact is how anything of value starts. The clear recognition that our job is not only to educate students but also to educate society is greatly welcomed.

"Universities have to be free to make life uncomfortable for vested interests and academics sometimes have to be free to make life uncomfortable for universities."

There was unanimous support from MSPs for the amendment, agreed at a meeting organised by the Scottish Executive, including the unions, institutions and funding councils. It covers staff "engaged in teaching, or the provision of learning, or research", giving them freedom within the law to "hold and express opinion, question and test established ideas and received wisdom, and present controversial or unpopular points of view".

The Scottish Executive's original proposals aimed to bring colleges and post-1992 higher education institutions into line with the old universities, whose right to academic freedom was enshrined in law. But the academic unions argued that the draft legislation protected institutions rather than individuals from government interference.

They warned that institutional autonomy could be used to suppress rather than support controversial or unpopular opinions.

The amendment follows support for the unions from the cross-party Enterprise and Culture Committee.

Convenor Alex Neil, a Scottish National Party MSP, said there was no fundamental difference of principle on academic freedom.

The question had been how to deal with it in terms of legislation, but writing academic freedom into the bill guaranteed its continuity.

olga.wojtas@thes.co.uk

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