Tory manifesto co-author bemoaned ‘activist academics’

Munira Mirza claimed some academics wished to suppress intellectual freedom, in article written while working for King’s College London

October 8, 2019

The Conservative manifesto will be co-written by a former adviser to Boris Johnson as shadow higher education minister who has been described as having a “deep understanding of the importance” of universities, and by another Johnson adviser who has accused some academics of suppressing intellectual freedom.

Rachel Wolf, a former education adviser in No 10 under David Cameron as well as to Mr Johnson, will write the manifesto alongside Munira Mirza, the director of the No 10 Policy Unit and former executive director for culture at King’s College London.

Ms Mirza, who was deputy London mayor for education and culture in Mr Johnson’s time as mayor, worked at King’s between January and July this year before moving to Downing Street. She has a PhD in sociology from the University of Kent and formerly wrote for the online magazine Spiked.

In May, Ms Mirza wrote an article about the intellectual climate in universities for The Daily Telegraph, centred on the case of Noah Carl, a researcher dismissed by St Edmund’s College, Cambridge after complaints from students and staff that his writings on race and intelligence helped “legitimise racist stereotypes”.

She said in the article: “There is a growing trend for activist academics to sign ‘open letters’ against colleagues. The aim is quite explicit: to close down discussion about sensitive issues – especially around race, sexuality and gender – and, by doing so, narrow the boundaries of acceptable speech, often on the unproven grounds that the feelings of individuals from minority groups will be hurt.”

Ms Mirza added: “Academics are coming under increasing pressure to conduct research or teach according to prescribed values and ideas, which do not cause offence or deviate beyond a political consensus.”

And she also said: “Honest and open intellectual inquiry is how universities can best serve society but some academics seem keener on a mission of ethical hygiene.”

Ms Wolf told Times Higher Education in August that universities needed “to be aware that they are at the centre of some big issues” occupying the Conservatives, “including free speech on campus, [unconditional] offers and degree class, and their wider contribution to society”.

Last month, columnist Rachel Sylvester suggested in The Times that “No 10 has been polling ‘culture war’ issues, such as transgender rights, to see whether they can be weaponised against Labour in northern working-class constituencies”.

That might raise the question of whether the Tory manifesto would seek to address campus free speech, an issue that has been of long-standing interest to right-wing newspapers in the UK and has proved a rallying point for the US right.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, thought it “conceivable but unlikely” that campus free speech would feature in the Tory manifesto.

“Many Conservatives worry more about a perceived monoculture within which staff and students seem to be far to the left of the median voter and less reflective of society at large,” Mr Hillman said. “It is a real challenge to ensure that any conversation about that does not bleed into unnecessary culture wars that no one benefits from.”

Mr Hillman said that Ms Wolf, an adviser to Mr Johnson in his time as shadow higher education minister from 2005 to 2007, had “demonstrated a deep understanding of the importance of universities, science and research to the whole UK” through her work on the Civic University Commission.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Conservative takes on campus: manifesto co-author bemoaned ‘activist academics’

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Reader's comments (1)

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The issue of Noah Carl was in the end not about freedom of ideas and their expression. Although the initial student complaints were about that it quickly emerged that he had not acted honestly in applying for the fellowship, concealing his publications in 'journals' whose purpose was to drive a political agenda under the guise of science. see the statement by the Master of St Edmunds https://www.st-edmunds.cam.ac.uk/sites/www.st-edmunds.cam.ac.uk/files/Statement%20by%20Master%20for%20website_outcome%20FINAL30%20April%202019.pdf

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