August 3, 2009

Nottingham ‘censorship': A defence

Filed under: Academic freedom,Nottingham — David Miller @ 9:37 am

by Pauline Eadie and Mathew Humphrey of Nottingham University

The Times Higher reports on vetting at Nottingham

The Times Higher reports on vetting at Nottingham

In the 25 June 2009 edition of the Times Higher Education an article appeared credited to Melanie Newman entitled ‘Reading lists inspected for capacity to incite violence’. The article referred to the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham.  The article claimed that the institution had set up a module review committee to advise on academic teaching materials. The article cites an internal document which states that the review is to ‘provide feedback to staff on a range of issues’, including the topics covered, the assessment methods used and “whether any material on reading lists could be illegal or might be deemed to incite people to use violence”’. The convenor of the on-line ‘Teaching about Terrorism’ group, Prof. David Miller of Strathclyde University, is cited as saying that Nottingham’s review policy ‘represented a fundamental attack on academic freedom’ The module review committee is a censorship committee: it can’t operate as anything else […] The University is acting as the police one step removed”

Being at another University, Prof. Miller understandably played no part in the discussion of, formulation of, nor implementation of module review at Nottingham. From where he gets the confidence to pronounce on the process with such certainty is something of a mystery. We assume he is not speaking in an academic capacity, as that may involve certain responsibilities to go with that much-cherished freedom, such as getting basic factual claims correct. The article nonetheless touches on a vitally important topic, and the University of Nottingham, and its staff in the School of Politics and International Relations, would not, we are sure, want to be responsible for curtailing academic freedom in their own institution.

‘Academic freedom’ can be a difficult concept to pin down; it is clearly related to freedom of speech, but is inevitably narrower, denoting rights and responsibilities for a specific group of people. For a UK Higher Education Institution such as Nottingham University UK law is clearly important in this regard. Under the Education Reform Act of 1988 ‘academic staff have the freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinion, without putting themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institution’.  The crucial words here are academic staff.  In other words academic freedom only applies to staff, not students, and academics, not administrators (a point apparently lost on those protesting the arrests on Nottingham University campus last summer as an attack on ‘academic freedom’ – given that they involved a student and an administrator. For a detailed account of that story see http://www.academicfreedom.co.uk).

With regard to teaching, particularly relevant in the case of module review, section 32(2) of the Higher Education Act 2004, places upon the Director of the Office for Fair Access ‘a duty to protect academic freedom including, in particular, the freedom of institutions – to determine the content of particular courses and the manner in which they are taught, supervised, or assessed.’  Note that this particular freedom falls to institutions, not individuals, so it implies that Nottingham University should be free to teach what and as it sees fit, free from interference by government or other outside bodies. It does not imply that individual University lecturers are free to teach whatever they want, however they want to.

Another aspect of academic freedom that is frequently cited is the capacity of the academic community to be self-governing. This is clearly linked to the institutional freedom noted above, on this view academic freedom is protected if it is academics who determine the policies relating to research and teaching of their home institution. This is the model of collegial governance. As UNESCO recommend, ‘the proper enjoyment of academic freedom…requires the autonomy of institutions of higher education. Autonomy is that degree of self-governance necessary for effective decision making…Higher education teaching personnel should have the right and opportunity…to take part in the governing bodies and…they should also have the right to elect a majority of representatives to academic bodies within the higher education institution’

We have then, an account of academic freedom with three dimensions, the right of academic staff to question and test received wisdom without fearing for their jobs, the right of Higher Education Institutions to determine the content, mode of delivery, and assessment of their curriculum, and the right of academic teaching staff to have a decisive say in how their institution is run. Whilst any account of academic freedom will be contestable, this one is not manifestly absurd and has the advantage of being conformant with UK law, which provides the institutional context in which the School has to operate. Given this account of academic freedom, how does module review at Nottingham look in relation to it? As noted at the outset of this article, module review aims to ‘provide feedback’ to staff (and that is all) on a range of issues related to the modules that they teach, such as the range of topics covered, links with other modules taught in the school and, (by now infamously and initially at the request of a colleague who had been critical of the original module review proposal), ‘whether any material on reading lists could be illegal or might be deemed to incite people to use violence’.

Such a review process clearly has no impact on our first dimension of academic freedom, the ability of academic staff to question and test received wisdom, without fear of retribution. It has nothing at all to say about what academics question or accept, and it says nothing about the contributions that academic staff make to discussions of any subject at all. With respect to the second and third elements, the process by which module review came to be implemented is important. Was this policy imposed by some faceless bureaucratic management? No. This was proposed by our Director of Teaching (i.e. an academic colleague) at School Committee, which is the governing body of the School and which is composed of all academic staff, two School managers, and student reps, and upon which academic staff form a large majority (satisfying our third element of academic freedom within the School). The policy was remitted twice for further consultation by the Director of Teaching with interested members of staff, and it was then voted upon at a third meeting, and the policy was carried by a clear majority. No breach of academic freedom there, then, and one might have hoped (in vain, it seems) that those who were defeated in a democratic decision taken with their colleagues (after extensive discussion) would accept that they had lost the argument on this occasion, even as they seek to change their colleagues’ minds.

What, one might ask, of the freedom of individual academics to teach what they see fit to teach, and to set as reading whatsoever they like? Some accounts of academic freedom appear consistent with such a right, although they do not necessarily imply it – ‘freedom of teaching, ‘freedom in the classroom’, or, in the UCU statement on academic freedom “freedom in teaching and discussion”. All of these statements are vague, and do little to specify what ‘freedom in teaching’ might actually mean for a university employee. Like most academic departments, the School of Politics and International Relations has a curriculum to service, which implies that a degree of co-ordination of the teaching effort is necessary. Staff have to be assigned to collectively taught modules, and modules that recruit very small numbers of students may not be viable. We have arranged teaching collectively in this way for years with no-one raising the cry of academic freedom. As noted under the Model Statute of the Education Reform Act of 1988 ‘academic freedom may mean rights, but it also means obligations, and it is not a licence simply to resist any aspects of working in an Higher Education Institution (HEI) which the individual academic may find irritating’.

Even if, however, we take the view that academic freedom entails that staff should be free to populate their reading list with whatever they wish, module review does nothing to challenge this ‘right’. Heads of Teaching Groups, who are of course academic colleagues (and not necessarily professorial colleagues), will give ‘feedback’ on the content of reading lists. This feedback has no statutory status at all, and staff are free to ignore it should they wish to. It is merely collegial advice. Experience has now shown the forms this advice can take, such as: “we think it might be a good idea if you indicated more clearly to students which texts you think are essential reading on this module.” Shocking stuff. Teaching groups now also have rather useful overviews of the topics covered within their teaching areas, along with the variety of forms of delivery and assessment on offer. This allows us an additional opportunity to spot gaps in coverage and to consider whether we ‘stretch’ students sufficiently with a variety of forms of assessment.

The School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham fully supports academic freedom, and also seeks, insofar as it can, to protect its staff and students in the face of the anti-terror legislation passed by the UK government. Both of the authors of this piece have experience of researching and teaching terrorism, so-called ‘eco-terrorism’ on the one hand and the social construction of terrorism and terrorism in South-East Asia on the other. The School runs popular Masters-level programmes on International Security and Terrorism, along with a range of modules on terrorism and terrorism-related topics. Research and teaching on security and terror is for us a serious business. Module review provides a means by which we take collective responsibility for what we teach, and by which we offer an implicit assurance that the material provided on our reading lists, whatever it may be, is for the purposes of study and research. If this demonstrates anything it is that we treat our responsibilities to staff and students with the gravity they deserve. We can only wish that the standard of reporting in the Times Higher Education was as responsible. As it is, Nottingham’s ‘censorship’ is now being flagged up on web sites such as ‘Scholars at Risk’ alongside cases in places such as Iraq and Iran. It is also rather ironic that the Times Higher saw fit to remove all comments posted to the Nottingham ‘censorship’ article. Citing a breach of privacy in one comment they removed the entire string of comments, the vast majority of which were critical of the article. Now that is censorship.

Dr. Pauline Eadie is a University Lecturer in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham, she is also Co-Director of the Institute of Asia Pacific Studies.

Dr. Mathew Humphrey is a Reader in Political Philosophy in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham, he is also Deputy Head of School.

2 Comments »

  1. […] welcome the fact that a couple of my colleagues have put forward their views in regard to the situation vis-à-vis the monitoring of module reading lists in Nottingham […]

    Pingback by Is vetting at Nottingham really a defence of academic freedom? « Teaching About Terrorism — August 6, 2009 @ 9:52 am

  2. […] is a “fundamental attack on academic freedom”. Two members of staff from the department rushed to defend the university and the policy. Academic freedom they note ‘applies to staff, not students, and academics, […]

    Pingback by Policing Academic Freedom « An und für sich — August 24, 2009 @ 2:48 pm

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