Threats to academic freedom

Warwick UCU Branch Committee calls on MPs to withdraw threats to academic freedom and to specific academics made to the Education Select Committee and apologise to those affected.

On Tuesday 27th April at a meeting of the Education Select Committee, Jonathan Gullis MP called for political interference in academic research, over-riding of employment law, and summary political sackings of university staff. While claiming to make these calls in defence of Jewish students, he belied his real motivations, as he himself recently used anti-semitic arguments to call for the suppression of academic freedom in a separate case.

Tory MPs threatening to sack academics and cut funding
In an inappropriate and unsubstantiated attack, Jonathan Gullis called for the summary dismissal of three specific members of University of Warwick staff, whom he named.

Gullis made the following statement ( : 

“Stuart Croft, the Vice Chancellor, was the biggest embarrassment to students at his University, we need to go further than just fining, we need to start sacking people and Stuart Croft, and Dr Goldie Osuri, and Professor Virinder Karla [sic] need to go to be quite frank.”

Both the Chair of the Education Committee, Robert Halfon MP, and the Minister for Universities, Michelle Donelan MP, appeared to endorse this position. The Minister explained to Mr Gullis that it is not possible for government ministers to “sack” VCs or academics, but went on to say, “I agree with you, certain universities do need to go further on this area”, while Robert Halfon suggested that universities were “hiding behind employment law” in failing to sack academics. 

Wholly inappropriate intervention
This exchange at the Education Select Committee was a wholly inappropriate and flagrantly political attack on academic freedom and democracy. It is deeply concerning that MPs should be attempting to interfere in university employment and academic freedom in this way, and we do not think that this is an isolated attack on the work of these specific scholars, but part of a sustained attack on critical thinking which is likely to continue unless robustly opposed. 

It parallels the Education Secretary’s call for a “Freedom of Speech Champion” for universities, which would apparently only support freedom of particular kinds of speech valued by government ministers, without regard for the safety or dignity of students, staff or wider university communities.

As with reports that the Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden would deny future funding to academic research into colonial histories by a specific Professor, which were prompted by calls from the so-called “Common Sense” group of which Gullis is a member, this is a worrying sign of how little the current government and its MPs value freedom of thought and democracy. These anti-democratic instincts to stifle scholarly research must be resisted.

It is important to note that both Dr Goldie Osuri and Professor Virinder Kalra are internationally recognised scholars who are well known for their research and civic work on anti-racism and anti-colonialism.

The claims by these MPs to be defending Jewish students is all the more galling in light of the fact that Gullis was a signatory to a recent letter from the so-called “Common Sense Group” of MPs who proposed cutting funding for historical research into Britain’s national heritage because they didn’t agree with the findings, referring in their statements to “cultural Marxist dogma”, a reference to a far-right anti-semitic conspiracy theory commonly used to attack critical scholars in the humanities and social sciences. 

We call on Jonathan Gullis MP to:

  1. Withdraw his anti-democratic call for political interference in university life
  2. Apologise to the academics he has targeted with threats
  3. Apologise for his endorsement of an anti-semitic conspiracy theory

We further call on Michelle Donelan MP and Robert Halfon MP to:

  1. Apologise for apparently condoning calls by a member of the Education Select Committee for political interference in university life, including threats towards individual academics
  2. Commit to upholding the principle that scholarly research should be free from political interference


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