VCs express doubts over impartiality of OfS chair appointee

A panel of vice-chancellors discussed the issue of freedom of speech and HE regulation

A panel of vice-chancellors has expressed doubts over the political impartiality of the Conservative peer appointed chair of the Office for Students.

On the issue of the appointment of James Wharton as chair of the independent HE regulator in England, the vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex Prof Adam Tickell said: “I worry about it. I think it is important we have a clear distinction between the state and the form of regulation.”

Prof Kathyrn Mitchell, the vice-chancellor of the University of Derby, said: “I think you have to have independence from a political viewpoint as the regulator. Can people separate themselves? That’s, I think, a personal decision, but I think it is a challenge.”

Prof Adam Habib, the newly appointed director of the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas), University of London, expressed concern about the relationship between English HE and party politics. “Regulation is a necessary feature of the system. What concerns me is the fact that it’s so party-political, and it’s following a party political logic, as opposed to an evidential base.”

Prof Tickell added that Lord Wharton “might become an advocate” in time.

The three institutional leaders joined a vice-chancellors’ question time virtual event hosted by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), which also featured Sally Mapstone, the vice-chancellor of the University of St Andrew’s.

The four vice-chancellors also expressed their views on freedom of speech on campuses.

Prof Habib said it was the “responsibility of every university and its vice-chancellor to defend academic freedom”. He said there “have been threats – small, minority threats – but there have been threats to freedom” at UK universities.

“It is important that liberal people, with a liberal predisposition, take seriously the principle of academic freedom. I think, sometimes, even progressive communities, in their advocacy of one or other political cause, can undermine academic freedom.

“I don’t think that the answer to that is some government tsar, because governments overtly politicise the question and make it vulnerable to one or other political agenda. The purpose of academic freedom is to keep the free space of ideas.”

One should be challenged sometimes. If you are offended, actually, that’s kind of opening up your views and making you think and that’s what universities are about
– Prof Sally Mapstone, University of St Andrew’s

Prof Tickell likened the issue to a “huge moral panic” and said the number of incidences of ‘no-platforming’ in UK universities is “vanishingly small”. He said the issue of academic freedom was real but had been inflated by some.

Referring to a lesbian, feminist academic at Sussex who has attracted criticism for her views on transgender issues, Prof Tickell discussed balancing the need to balance her freedom of expression with the need to create a welcoming environment for the transgender community at the university and in the city of Brighton.

He said national debates are playing out on campuses, and “universities are expected to be the ground in which we resolve these irresolvable differences”.

“All we can do is create an environment where people feel at least minimally able to be unhappy with other people’s positions,” he added.

The Sussex vice-chancellor said universities had a legal obligation to protect academic freedom, but that obligation was “tempered by the Prevent duty and the public sector duty to equality”.

“We’re having to balance out a whole range of different legal and moral requirements in order to reach a resolution, which is minimally disruptive.” He called for leaders to “inject nuance” into the discussion.

Prof Mapstone said universities had recently experienced “the really pronounced phenomenon of no-platforming, often within a social media context, in which the tendency is to try to shut down things that you don’t want to think or hear about. That is the place where we are”.

The St Andrew’s vice-chancellor said the issue had become a difficult one to handle institutionally. Vice-chancellors must “call out the dangers of de-platforming”, she said, “and remind students and others that there is no basic right not to be offended. That’s what all this comes down to. One should be challenged sometimes. If you are offended, actually, that’s kind of opening up your views and making you think and that’s what universities are about.”

Prof Mitchell said universities should be careful not to become “too corporate” in setting down freedom of speech rules and bring issues of academic freedom to their academic boards to discuss.

Prof Habib was challenged by Ruth Deech, a crossbench peer and former principal of St Anne’s College, Oxford, on how he intended to “change the allegedly toxic anti-semitic atmosphere on the Soas campus”. Lady Deech also asked if Soas intended to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.

Soas refunded a student £15,000 in tuition fees after he said he was forced to abandon his studies because of a “toxic antisemitic environment”.

The Soas director declined to say if the university would implement the IHRA definition but said the university board of trustees had adopted new charter values “that make clear that we abhor all forms of discrimination, including racism, antisemitism and Islamophobia.” He said Soas would uphold these values “equally” to those that violate them while protecting academic freedom.

Prof Mitchell said Derby “had accepted that the sentiment of [the IHRA] statement is correct, but we haven’t implemented it in its entirety into the university”. Prof Tickell said Sussex adopted the IHRA definition “quite a considerable period ago” but the university clearly stated this “doesn’t prevent people from criticising Israel”.

Read more: OfS chair: Labour calls for inquiry into appointment of Conservative peer

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