Triesman dubs UK state 'Big Brother'

September 15, 2000

The government was accused by trade unionists this week of attacking essential safeguards of academic freedom and of "censoring" pioneering thinking, writes Phil Baty.

Moving a motion on higher education, the Association of University Teachers general secretary, David Triesman, likened new Labour and other governments to Orwell's Big Brother, with the Thought Police suppressing free thinking.

He grouped the UK government with the governments of Iran and Iraq, lambasting their failure to endorse elements of the 1997 Unesco convention on higher education, which enshrines academic freedom.

Mr Triesman said university teachers and researchers "think the unthinkable. They go where others fear to treadI They can be uncomfortable people for governments and power brokers."

He boasted that there were 28 Nobel prizewinners among the AUT's membership and that members had made a host of discoveries, including DNA and CJD.

"Time and again, governments and other powerful forces try to censor this work. To succeed, you have to protect these academics from a real Big Brother. That is why their rights are protected by a Unesco international convention.

"The convention protects this freedom around the world yet sadly it is under frequent attack, even in the UK. Unesco gets in the way of the managerialists and the button counters for whom the bottom line of firing short-contract staff will always be more important than CJD.

"The new Labour government - with Australia, Iraq and Iran - has entered reservations operating the Unesco convention. They should step back from this ill-assorted alliance and guarantee the freedoms I described."

Mr Triesman said that the UK government "too often strays too close to the line" in a way that threatened academic freedom. He said that there was no malice, but that David Blunkett had "not thought through" his approach to research funding and the wider threats it poses.

"No one has a problem if the secretary of state wants resources spent in specific areas that they believe are of broad use to society. But the idea that you should persuade people to take money out of research areas you do not think are useful flies in the face of academic freedom."

The TUC passed both of the AUT's motions unanimously. One called on the TUC to lobby for a commitment from political parties to proper investment in higher education, the other for a review of the implementation of new employment rights.

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