Scots unions urge free speech for all

January 28, 2005

Unions in Scotland are calling for all academics north of the border to be given the legal right to voice controversial opinions without risking losing their jobs.

Academic freedom is being extended from higher education institutions to further education colleges in legislation going through Parliament to merge the Scottish further and higher education funding councils.

But the Association of University Teachers Scotland is urging ministers to extend this to individual academics.

Tony Axon, AUTS research officer, said: "We find it strange that this doesn't extend to individuals."

The 1988 Education Reform Act defined academic freedom for staff in old universities and the Open University in Scotland.

The Act says that academics have freedom within the law "to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions" without fear of repercussions.

The Act introduced safeguards for individual academic freedom following the loss of academic tenure.

Previously, tenured academics were protected because they could not be fired under the charters and statutes of higher education institutions.

Each institution also had its own definition of "academic staff". This meant that some universities accorded the right of free views to all staff, while others did not include, for example, researchers on fixed-term contracts.

But, while institutions that became universities after 1992 might in practice respect the academic freedom of individual staff, this is not guaranteed or underpinned by legislation.

The AUTS wants to see the merger legislation amended to extend the right of freedom of expression across institutions.

Dr Axon warned that at institutional level, academic autonomy could be used to suppress rather than promote academic freedom, if the institutional hierarchy or research sponsors thought views were "inconvenient".

But during the stage-one debate on the merger Bill, Jim Wallace, the Lifelong Learning Minister, rejected the prospect of an amendment.

Freedom of expression should exist in all institutions, he said, but individual freedom was primarily a matter for institutions and their employees. "The issue is already covered in some contracts," he said.

Dr Axon said: "If it is in contracts, it can be removed, and it does not necessarily apply to all staff involved in teaching, research and publishing. We would like to see this sharpened up."

The AUTS will lobby Parliament's enterprise and culture committee, which is overseeing the passage of the Bill, during the second-stage debates that begin next month.

A spokesman for Universities Scotland said: "We would obviously want to look carefully at the detail of anything that is added to the Bill, but the principle of academic freedom is one we clearly more than fully support."

Academic freedom was at the heart of all university work and must be safeguarded, he said. "Universities must be free to explore unhindered matters they consider important and academics should have freedom of expression."

olga.wojtas@thes.co.uk

 

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