Nothing new in challenge to autonomy

November 9, 2017

The MP Chris Heaton-Harris’ “polite request” for vice-chancellors to provide details of course content about “the teaching of European affairs, with particular reference to Brexit” (“Minister under pressure over MP’s ‘McCarthyite’ letter”, News, 2 November) is not the first challenge to academic autonomy.

In the 1980s, under a previous Tory government, an early morning broadcast of an interview with Cheshire’s director of education about the Great Education Reform Bill, as part of an Open University course on education policy and provision, resulted in a call from the Department of Education and Science demanding a right of reply. We had to explain that this was the OU equivalent of a visiting lecturer in a classroom, a legitimate academic critique, not a party political broadcast.

We also had the famous enquiry into alleged Marxist bias, triggered by a handful of people when thousands took the courses involved and broadcasts attracted audiences of up to a quarter of a million. The enquiry found no substance to the claims, but even so, three stages of external scrutiny of draft materials were introduced to ensure “balance” within any element, so that one unit putting one perspective, and another putting a different one was not allowable. BBC staff were very nervous, and I had imposed on me right-wing contributors who insisted on being subject to no comment and no editing. The external assessment process deemed at least one programme imbalanced – to the Right! – but I accepted that, believing that my students were good enough to spot “false truths”. More insidiously, self-censorship removed a valid critical perspective from courses for several years.

Plus ça change

Ian McNay
Professor emeritus, higher education and management
University of Greenwich

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