August 6, 2009

Is vetting at Nottingham really a defence of academic freedom?

Filed under: Academic freedom,Nottingham,Rod Thornton — Rod Thornton @ 8:51 am

By Rod Thornton, Nottingham University

Nottingham University: Debating academic freedom

Nottingham University: Debating academic freedom

I 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 University’s School of Politics. I feel I should be allowed some sort of reply. I am, after all, at the centre of this whole situation in that I feel that I cannot allow my own reading lists concerned with Terrorism modules to be monitored in the fashion suggested.

Just about everything the two writers say needs to be put into context. First of all, the point is never made as to why this module review process – where academics check other academics’ reading lists without student input – is actually necessary specifically in the School of Politics. Why does it need to be introduced in the School of Politics and not across the whole of Nottingham University? I would say that there is no rationale. Of course, the assumption has been made that the School of Politics was involved in some way in the arrests that we had in May 2008 on campus – when two people were detained on terrorism charges. In fact, the School was in no way involved.

The writers also do not apply the context of the fact that, prior to the entire School being subject to the module review process, it was at one time just my own reading lists that were subject to review. Then the review was to be by the School’s Ethics Committee – a committee charged with examining research and not teaching. In October last year my Head of School came to see me to tell me this. I asked why? After all, neither I nor my courses had anything to do with the student who had been arrested. Moreover, the student did not have access to any reading lists of mine. So why was my reading list suddenly subject to review? I received no answer to this. Other lecturers who taught terrorism in the School (including the two writers of the above article) did not have to send their modules to the Ethics Committee for checking. I thought the process unfair and an example of victimisation and refused to accept the process. If I did it would amount, in my eyes, to an admission of some sort of guilt. However, despite my protestations, my lists alone were still sent to the Ethics Committee. The members of this committee did not, in fact, carry out their allotted task.

There is much use of the word ‘collective’ by the two writers. There was nothing ‘collective’ about the original decision to subject just my reading lists to review.

A few weeks later the goalposts were moved and the module review process came to take in all of the School’s reading lists. This was when it was proposed at a School Committee meeting. I still took it to be, though, a process to check just my own modules.

Indeed, the writers need some correction on this point. They say that ‘the process by which module review came to be implemented is important’. They ask: ‘Was this policy imposed by some faceless bureaucratic management?’ ‘No’, they reply: ‘This was proposed by our Director of Teaching at School Committee’. Well, I beg to differ. It was, in fact, ‘proposed’ by our Head of School weeks earlier when he came to see me and when he told me it was purely his decision. It stretches credulity somewhat if we are to believe that the Director of Teaching independently then came up with the same idea that the Head of School had originally applied to me. And how does the School’s independence of action in this regard fit in with the writers’ talk of the institution’s obligations according to the law? Are we to assume from what they say that this process came in originally without institutional authorisation and was merely the idea of the Director of Teaching? If so, why make the argument that the university had to introduce this process in order to conform to the law? Either it’s a process to ‘provide feedback’ (as the writers aver) invented by the Director of Teaching or it’s a process to conform to the law introduced by the university? Which is it?

And why do the writers constantly allude to terrorism in their piece? Terrorism seems to be the issue at hand here so why are all the School’s lecturers (c.35) having their modules checked? What ‘feedback’ goes to those teaching Quantitative Methods, etc, if terrorism is the concern? Again, either the process is to provide feedback ‘to staff on a range of issues related to their modules taught in the school’, or it is to deal with the terrorism courses per se? Which is it?

The writers also allude to the fact that a vote was taken in Committee. I feel it only fair to point out that the count of this vote was subject to contestation (there were more votes than people in the room) and requests were made for a further vote under a secret ballot. This was to clear up the count and also so that those who voted, including admin staff, and those PhD students and teaching fellows who wanted future employment in the School, could vote without fear of offending senior members of the School. This new vote has not come to pass.

Where the quotation is taken from the Higher Education Act 2004 this, again, needs to be put into context. It is said that the ‘Director of the Office for Fair Access’ has ‘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’. But the point here is that the Director of Fair Access has the responsibility to protect the academic freedom of the institutions themselves, from outside pressures. The Director of Fair Access is not responsible for the academic freedom of individual lecturers. That is the responsibility of the institutions. It is incumbent on the institutions to then protect the academic freedom of their lecturers. This is the bit the two writers miss out and which, perforce, undermines their argument. The writers selectively quote the UNESCO guidelines on the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel 1997. They miss out the part where it says that, ‘Higher education institutions, individually or collectively, should design and implement appropriate systems of accountability, including quality assurance mechanisms…without harming institutional autonomy or academic freedom’ (UNESCO, Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel 1997, B. ‘Institutional Accountability’, para. 24). It is the institutions that become ultimately responsible for the academic freedom of those lecturers they employ. They are also responsible for ‘ensuing that higher education personnel are not impeded in their work n the classroom…by harassment’ (Ibid., para. 22.(h)). Moreover, ‘Higher education teaching personnel are entitled to the maintaining of academic freedom, that is to say, the right, without constriction by prescribed doctrine, to freedom of teaching [and] freedom from institutional censorship’ (Ibid., para. 27). What is this module review process (over and above any normal review process) if it is not ‘institutional censorship’?

Indeed, the UNESCO guidelines go on: ‘higher education teaching personnel have the right to teach without any interference subject to accepted professional standards incurring professional responsibility and intellectual rigour with regards to standards and methods of teaching’ (Ibid., para. 28). There has at no time in the past been any doubting of my ‘professional responsibility’ in terms of teaching terrorism. There has never been anything of controversy on any of my reading lists and, again, I did not teach any of those arrested and neither of them had any access to my reading lists. I am the most experienced person in the School in terms of both dealing with terrorists for real (in the Army) and in terms of teaching the subject. I have, moreover, just been voted best undergraduate and best postgraduate lecturer in Nottingham’s School of Politics. So why now do my modules need ‘reviewing’ by other lecturers in my School who I do not believe are competent to do so? Why should my ‘professional responsibility… intellectual rigour… and standards of teaching’ be brought into question? I have a right to dignity at work. The process of module reviews clearly represents ‘interference’ in something that was not broken. Why does it need fixing?

The two writers refer to the ‘citing of an internal document’ as if it was some sort of crime to do so. Keeping such module review documents ‘internal’ runs counter, again, to UNESCO guidelines: ‘Systems of institutional accountability should be based on scientific methodology [where] both the methodology and results should be open’. The way in which academics in Nottingham’s School of Politics check other academics modules cannot really be described as ‘scientific’ and nor can it be described as ‘open’. Why is it a secret? The two writers do not say why the process was supposed to remain a secret. Is such an act not an imposition of ‘censorship’ itself?

The next point refers to the lack of student input into this review process. This process has been set up to monitor and review a lecturer’s modules. But, curiously, this monitoring and review process runs counter to all of the university’s documents covering the management of academic standards. All of these cite ‘student input’ as being a necessary part of any monitoring or review process. The latest to do so is Nottingham University’s draft Briefing Paper prepared for the QAA Institutional Audit. This states that, ‘Student feedback is considered as a matter of course in monitoring and review’. Why then does Nottingham’s School of Politics ignore this stipulation? Will this exception be pointed out to the QAA auditors?

The writers make reference to UK law: ‘For a UK Higher Education Institution such as Nottingham University UK law is clearly important’. And they are right to say that UK law ‘provides the institutional context in which the School has to operate’ and that ‘academic staff have the freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom’. Exactly. But who is making the law here? One of the problems we have at Nottingham is that it is the university itself – and not ‘the UK’ – that is making the law. The university has declared the document that led to the arrests on campus to be ‘illegal’; a document, again, that is freely available and often used by students. Nobody else has said this document is illegal; certainly not the police or the Crown Prosecution Service. If such declarations are made by universities then how are the lecturers who work for such universities and who are checking other academics’ work supposed to operate? Do they work ‘within the law’ of the land or the law as dictated by their university? I myself prefer to operate according to the law of the land. This for me is a very important point and one that is simply ignored within the School and by the two writers.

The aim of the process is said by the writers to be merely the benign one of providing ‘feedback’ (‘advice’ is another word used) to staff. But ‘feedback’ is supposed to come from the students. What sort of system is it that provides ‘feedback’ from colleagues who have not attended the lecturer’s classes and who are not experts in the field? Again, not very ‘scientific’. As in this case, and I reiterate, if a lecturer has spent much of his adult life – both professional and academic – dealing with terrorists and teaching terrorism then, I am sorry, it is no surprise if that lecturer does not take kindly to ‘feedback’ from lecturers who have not spent much of their own lives dealing with such issues.

In our School the process is said to be one whereby the Director of Teaching will not have the power to remove any item from a lecturer’s reading list, only to ‘draw the item to their attention’. But if this happens, and when ‘feedback’ and ‘advice’ are offered from more senior colleagues, can it all really be ignored by junior colleagues? That would be difficult. So when does ‘feedback’ become a form of intimidation or even bullying? I did ask if I could opt out of this whole benign ‘feedback’ process. This was rejected. The fact that it was rejected gives the lie, I believe, to the supposition that this process is a benign one. And how do words such as ‘feedback’ and ‘advice’ square with the writers’ earlier point that academic freedom ‘does not imply that individual University lecturers are free to teach what ever they want, however they want to’. Either this is the ‘feedback’ process the writers claim in one part of their article, or it is the less than benign ‘policing’ process they claim in another part of the article. Which is it?

The whole process is also impractical. How can any committee say they have ‘checked’ a lecturer’s reading list? Have they read everything on it and gone into every website link? Of course they haven’t. Again, it is not ‘scientific’. So just what is the point of the process? A much more sensible option, and one which I have offered as a compromise, is that of allowing a disclaimer to be placed on the front of reading lists saying that the university takes no responsibility for any material accessed for non-academic purposes. This actually provides better legal cover than saying that a reading list has been ‘checked’. Once it has been checked the university must take legal responsibility for what is in it. My offer, however, was rejected.

There is also some mixing up of issues apparent here. The writers refer on their first page to the issue of academic freedom and how this relates to ‘academic staff’. This goes back to the original protests on Nottingham’s campus after the student and administrator were arrested and it is an issue that comes out of a deal of confusion that was apparent at the time. Much of this confusion stemmed from statements made by the previous vice-chancellor regarding the issue of academic freedom. The protests were about what he said. But the issue with the two who were arrested was not really about academic freedom; it was about freedom per se. Both had a right to be in possession of the document the student had taken from a US Department of Justice website. Anyone in this country can also go down to their local library and order the full version of both books that this edited-down document was taken from. Both books and the document are not restricted in any way. The idea put forward by the two writers that ‘academic staff’ could look at these books/document while ordinary members of the public could not is simply a false dichotomy and I do not know why the writers are talking about it. As was made clear last year, there was nothing ‘illegitimate’ about the document that led to the arrests.

The final point here is the precedent this whole process sets. If a university can start to lay down its own laws and to say, despite contrary evidence, that it does not trust its lecturers to construct their own reading lists then where does this stop? What is next and who is next?
Dr Rod Thornton
School of Politics and International Relations
University of Nottingham


  1. Actually, there are surely cases where it would also be necessary to stand up to national laws and refuse to implement or comply – otherwise academics would have to for instance, hand over dissidents in countries like Iran, or Jews in Nazi Germany, etc. It’s quite conceivable that the government will eventually make vetting a legal responsibility and it would not become any more acceptable as a result. It is absurd to view the law as an outer limit to human rights. Rather, human rights are necessarily an outer limit to the law – the moment it overreaches, it loses any legitimate claim to obedience.

    Comment by critic — August 22, 2009 @ 10:37 am

  2. […] only to members of staff. Rod Thornton replies to this defense of the new policy in detail in a remarkably clear sighted article that is worth reading in its entirety, particularly for his account of his experience of the […]

    Pingback by Policing Academic Freedom « An und für sich — August 24, 2009 @ 2:49 pm

  3. […] he taught “had anything to do with the student who had been arrested,” the lecturer wrote in an online piece published in 2009 questioning why reading lists for modules at Nottingham’s School of Politics […]

    Pingback by U. of Nottingham Sparks Academic Freedom Concerns With Suspension of Lecturer - The Global Ticker - The Chronicle of Higher Education — May 5, 2011 @ 4:10 am

  4. […] to be made of actual people (the leaked details of Thornton’s paper seem very mild indeed). The general approach to ‘vetting’ documentation certainly seems rather damning, especially considering that those doing the authorising of teaching […]

    Pingback by In Terrorem, University of Nottingham Branch « The Disorder Of Things — May 9, 2011 @ 7:11 pm

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