UK academics ‘discriminate against political opposites’ – survey

Written by: Anna McKie
Published on: 6 Aug 2020

Anti-Brexit protest

Source: iStock

A survey has suggested that a third of academics who supported remain in the UK’s European Union referendum would seek to avoid hiring a known leave supporter, while nearly a quarter of right-wing academics would rate a paper lower if it had a left-wing perspective.

The thinktank Policy Exchange commissioned a YouGov poll of 820 UK academics, of whom 484 were currently employed and 336 were retired staff, and found that academics on both sides of the political divide discriminated against each other when it came to decisions on grant applications, promotions and publications.

The report authors estimated that between a third and a half of left-wingers reviewing a grant bid would mark it lower if it took a right-wing perspective, while 23 per cent of right-wing academics would rate an academic paper less favourably if it adopted a left-wing perspective.

About a third of academics who voted remain are likely to discriminate against a leaver in job appointments, the report authors add. A similar proportion of leave-voting academics would be likely to appoint a centrist with a weaker track record over someone on the left, they estimated.

“It is likely that academics do not discriminate more than other professions, nor does left discriminate more than right,” according to the authors.

In fact, 50 per cent of those on the right would discriminate in favour of a leave supporter over a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn in a job appointment when two candidates are equal; in the same situation, 40 per cent of those on the left would discriminate in favour of the Corbyn supporter.

However, according to the report, as there is a smaller share of right-wing and leave supporters in academia, they are more likely to find themselves discriminated against.

In the sample, 53 per cent identified as left, 35 per cent as centrist, and 9 per cent as right.

According to the report, this has led academics to engage in self-censorship, particularly those on the right or leave supporters. If found that one in four academics reported feeling unable to express their views in university because they were afraid of disagreeing with their peers.

The report also found that 63 per cent of the “very right” and 44 per cent of the “fairly right” perceived there to be a hostile environment to their beliefs, compared with 16 per cent for the “very left” and 8 per cent for the “fairly left”.

It showed that 32 per cent of the “right” had refrained from airing their views in teaching or research, and 15 per cent of centrists agreed, while 10 per cent of the “fairly left” and 15 per cent of the “very left” agreed.

Among right-leaning staff currently teaching in the social sciences and humanities, the share who report having self-censored was 50 per cent.

However, the authors write that “there is, reassuringly, little support among most academics for dismissal campaigns against colleagues”.

For any given potential campaign, those who are opposed to a dismissal are likely to outnumber those in favour by eight to one, the survey showed.

The report recommends the creation of a director for academic freedom in the Office for Students, backed up by an academic freedom bill.

The role would have “ombudsman powers with responsibility for ensuring universities’ compliance with the public interest governance conditions concerning academic freedom and freedom of speech” and would be able to investigate allegations that an institution has violated academic freedom and freedom of speech guidance, the report says. Academic freedom and freedom of speech in universities should be “explicit in the law”, the authors write.

The OfS recently said that it would issue regulatory guidance on both this autumn.

The paper also raises the idea of an academic freedom charter organisation – independent of government – that would award marks to universities for their commitment to political anti-discrimination and viewpoint diversity.

Remi Adekoya, a university teacher in political economy at the University of Sheffield, one of the co-authors of the paper, said: “Britain’s universities are world-leading and make major contributions to the national economy, to local growth in their cities and regions, and to social mobility. They enhance and support the creative, intellectual and cultural life of the country. But they will founder if the principle of academic freedom – the idea that individual scholars and scientists should be free to research, teach and contribute to public debate without fear or favour – continues to face significant challenges in practice.”

Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, said that the idea that academic freedom was under threat was a “myth”.

“The main concern our members express is not with thinktank-inspired bogeyman, but with the current government’s wish to police what can and cannot be taught at university,” she said.

A Universities UK spokesman said: “Academic freedom and freedom of speech are critical to the success of UK higher education, and universities take seriously their legal obligations on both. Robustly protecting these characteristics in a constantly evolving world is of the utmost importance to universities.”