Labour shadow universities minister Matt Western has called on his counterpart in government, Michelle Donelan, to “speak up for the autonomy of […] universities and academic freedom of […] staff”, after her appearance at a select committee hearing led to an acrimonious discussion with MPs about the institutional independence of universities in England.
During the committee on 27 April, Conservative MP and committee member Jonathon Gullis called on the vice-chancellor of Warwick University, Stuart Croft, to resign over the handling of an antisemitism complaint against an academic that resulted in no further action. After concluding the academic’s statement was an acceptable form of free speech, the university also investigated the reporting student after the lecturer accused them of “bullying and harassment and a defamation”. No further action was taken against the student.
“Stuart Croft, the vice-chancellor, was the biggest embarrassment to students at his university,” Gullis said. “We need to go further than just fine, we need to start sacking people. Stuart Croft [and the academics involved in the handling of the complaint] need to go, to be quite frank.”
While you rightly said that the government cannot sack university staff, you made no strong defence of the institutional independence, or academic freedom, that helps make our universities a success – Matt Western
In a letter to Donelan rejecting Gullis’s comments, Western said: “This is dangerously authoritarian behaviour and totally inappropriate to call for at a select committee meeting. Academics and the wider education profession should not be vilified through a select committee reduced to the status of a kangaroo court.”
Western said Donelan failed to mount a “strong defence” of universities and staff when she was questioned by committee members about the case at Warwick and an ongoing investigation into a member of staff at the University of Bristol. He called upon the minister to condemn the remarks. “While you rightly said that the government cannot sack university staff, you made no strong defence of the institutional independence, or academic freedom, that helps make our universities a success,” he continued.
The minister told the committee that universities in England “are autonomous” and that it is “important” Bristol lead its investigation into alleged wrongdoing, adding that universities should be “welcoming institutions for everybody from all walks of life” and that antisemitism “has no place in our universities”. Committee chair Robert Halfon accused the minister of “washing her hands” of the problem.
The exchange was “ironic given that you are currently pursuing a Bill supposedly designed to protect freedom of speech at universities”, Western noted in his letter. “Far from defending staff from this unwarranted attack – as would be expected from the minister for universities – you instead agree that “certain universities do need to go further on this area”.
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