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 (https://parliamentlive.tv/event/index/32f86b8d-1689-4717-86b4-17bf0665c4f8?in=10:44:48&out=10:48:49) : 

“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

 

Public Health in the Community: UCU Branches at Coventry and Warwick Universities Call for All-Online Teaching in Term 1

Joint Statement from Coventry University and University of Warwick University and College Union (UCU) Branches on the Community Public Health Impacts of the Reopening of Coventry and Warwick Universities, 10.9.20

 

The Vice Chancellors of Coventry and Warwick Universities made a statement on 25 August that they believed their campuses would be ‘as “covid-secure” as possible’ and that they had due regard to public health measures. The University and College Union (UCU) trade union branches on both campuses dispute this, backing the national UCU position, and statements in the House of Commons by our local MP, that there should be a presumption that all teaching is online except in very limited circumstances.

 

This position is based on evidence from government SAGE, Independent SAGE, peer-reviewed evidence in the British Medical Journal, and university experiences overseas, and in a situation where cases of Covid-19 are already rising significantly in Coventry. As the government SAGE report released on Friday indicated, campus outbreaks of Covid-19 are inevitable, and the likely consequences severe – for local communities as well as for the students and staff exposed, and their households. Despite the Universities’ promise of risk mitigation, requiring staff and students to undertake in-person teaching will not be safe, sustainable, or pedagogically sound.

 

While we have continued to support the risk assessment process at both Universities, having assessed the evidence we believe that the risks are much higher than acknowledged by our university leadership for our university communities and the city of Coventry at large.

 

The demographics of the Coventry area suggest a greater vulnerability to Covid-19 according government data, with increases in cases already seen in local areas in close proximity to Coventry University.

 

Despite the joint statement from Vice Chancellors, the two universities are planning inconsistent mitigation measures which further underlines the lack of evidence-based planning and the resulting public health risk. Staff and students at the University of Warwick are required to wear masks in classrooms (with no clarity about how this will be maintained), while staff and students at Coventry University have been told it is optional in teaching spaces. Attendance at in-person classes will be optional for Coventry students, while Warwick students have to provide evidence of special circumstances to be allowed to miss in-person classes. While the University of Warwick has established on-campus testing facilities and Coventry University has not, there are serious questions about this test and trace capacity.

 

Neither University has the confidence of staff and students to manage the high levels of risk associated with the return to campus. Poor management of planning, communications and expectations of students will impact further on the existing university mental health crisis.

 

Forcing all but the most vulnerable staff back to campus subjects them and the Coventry community to risks of serious illness and death that are entirely predictable and avoidable. We urge the Vice Chancellors of our universities to reconsider the position and make online teaching the default option, for the sake of our local communities.

 

UCU Coventry University Committee

UCU University of Warwick Committee