Students who pay the piper may call the tune

August 18, 2006

Consumer mentality in Britain could drive push for political accountability that dogs American colleagues, a Harvard expert tells Jon Marcus.

The rise of a consumer mentality among British students could one day lead to demands on UK academics to demonstrate that they do not promote particular political or ideological views in their lectures, according to a Harvard University sociologist who conducted a major survey on academic freedom in the US.

The warning comes amid concerns in the US that academic freedom is still under threat despite the results of a survey that showed that the majority of Americans believe the independence of universities should be protected.

The rights of academics to express views different from those of the USGovernment in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks is a contentious issue.

But attempts to introduce external regulation of academics under an Academic Bill of Rights for public universities - which was proposed by the conservative writer David Horowitz to spare students the politically correct homilies of liberal professors - have been largely unsuccessful.

Although 18 states have considered enacting the legislation, which declares that students should expect an education free of political, ideological or religious orthodoxy, not one has passed it. Yet about 30 major higher education organisations, including the American Association of University Professors, have since endorsed a similar sort of "intellectual pluralism"

on campus.

The prospect of a similar debate surfacing in the UK, albeit with less political rancour, has been raised by an expert on the issue of academic freedom in the US.

Neil Gross, a Harvard sociologist who helped conduct a national survey on the American public's attitudes towards academic freedom, has just returned from a visit to the UK.

He said: "Differences in national political culture and in the institutional structures of higher education between the US and the UK mean that questions of academic freedom are likely to play out in a very different way. However, diminished state support for higher education in the context of neoliberalism does seem to be fostering a consumer mentality among British students that might lead to other kinds of demands for professorial accountability."

An ICM poll commissioned by The Times Higher revealed this month that four in ten academics in the UK believe that the freedom to express controversial or unpopular opinions is under attack.

The US survey, which Dr Gross carried out with Solon Simmons of the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University, found that more than 60 per cent of the public said it was acceptable for professors who oppose the war in Iraq to express anti-war views in class.

But about the same percentage said that public universities should be able to sack academics who join the Communist Party or radical political organisations, and 57 per cent said that there was no room in the academy for those who defend Islamic militants.

The survey confirmed that the divide over academic freedom follows political lines. Nearly half of Democrats expressed confidence in universities, while fewer than a third of Republicans did. Twice as many Republicans as Democrats cited political bias in the classroom as a problem. Asked to name the biggest problem in higher education, only 8 per cent singled out political bias in the classroom. Still, nearly 70 per cent of Americans said universities favour liberal professors.

Despite the survey's mixed messages, the authors say US academics should not underestimate the threat to their independence. Dr Gross said: "I think American professors have to do a better job of explaining to the public why it is so important that academic freedom be preserved."

Will academic freedom in the UK come under similar pressures as in the US?

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