UCU delegates voice concerns over clampdown on academic freedom

Sponsorship, skills focus and speaking out on extremism top agenda, writes Melanie Newman

May 22, 2008

Academics face a series of "assaults" on their academic freedom, the annual conference of the University and College Union will hear next week.

A University of Brighton branch motion due to be debated complains of "corporate skewing of research through sponsorship" and the redefinition of education as skills acquisition by the Government.

It also states that "terrorism will not be effectively countered by proscription of ideas" on campus.

Tom Hickey, Brighton UCU branch chairman, said that government calls for a clampdown on campus extremism had resulted in the silencing of debate.

"If somebody wanted to discuss the merits of Sharia they would find it difficult to do, as it might be interpreted as evidence of extremism," he said.

The debate will follow reports that police arrested two men at the University of Nottingham under the Terrorism Act last week. It is understood that the arrests are related to alleged extremist materials.

The debate also follows comments by Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, who claimed that there were campuses where some Jewish students were too afraid to show any outward signs of their Jewish identity.

He said that vice-chancellors "must defend freedom of speech on all sides and all arguments. It must never be students of this or that faith who feel vulnerable or at risk or like pariahs on a university campus."

Last month, University College London dismissed an honorary research fellow for his controversial views on the Holocaust. UCL terminated astronomer Nicholas Kollerstrom's unpaid fellowship after bloggers revealed he had questioned the extent of the Holocaust.

"The views expressed by Dr Kollerstrom are diametrically opposed to the aims, objectives and ethos of UCL, such that we wish to have absolutely no association with them," UCL said.

Dr Kollerstrom published a paper online, The Auschwitz Gas Chamber Illusion, which claims that there was no intentional mass extermination programme of Jews. Elsewhere, the academic had suggested that the 7 July 2005 London Tube bombings had been orchestrated by "western security agents" working for "Zionist masters".

Dennis Hayes, former UCU president and founder of Academics for Academic Freedom, said Dr Kollerstrom should not have been fired.

"No matter how absurd people's views are they should be allowed to express them. They should not be turned into martyrs," he said.

But Dr Hickey said Dr Hayes was taking defence of academic freedom too far. "Holocaust denial is a justification of what happened," he said. "None of the Holocaust deniers genuinely believe it didn't happen."



A motion will ask Congress to note the "apparent complicity of most of the Israeli academy" in the "humanitarian catastrophe imposed on Gaza by Israel" and will ask members to "consider the moral and political implications of educational links with Israeli institutions".

The possibility of merger with the National Union of Teachers should be considered by the UCU in the long term, according to one motion, which asks the union to consider ways of increasing short-term co-operation between the two unions.

Arrangements for professorial pay should be subject to transparent institution-wide criteria, on a published pay scale, according to a motion from the union's Higher Education Committee.

One motion calls for a campaign against changes to the statutes of pre-1992 universities, which would replace the redundancy statute with fast-track procedures that "erode job security" and would remove independent members of grievance panels.

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