In the news: 27 October 2017

Academic freedom row as MP demands list of Brexit professors

Responding to news on Tuesday that Conservative whip Chris Heaton-Harris MP had written to universities asking for the names of academics involved in teaching European affairs "with particular reference to Brexit", UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said the letter had the "acrid whiff of McCarthyism" about it and called on universities minister Jo Johnson to condemn it.

While both Johnson and Heaton-Harris remained silent as the storm broke, apart from each tweeting saying they supported academic freedom, other politicians were not so circumspect. Former Conservative party chairman and current chancellor of Oxford University Lord Patten called the letter "idiotic Leninism" while shadow education secretary Angela Rayner called Heaton-Harris a "pound shop McCarthy". Chairman of the science and technology committee Norman Lamb described the letter as "an incredibly disturbing intervention" and called on the prime minister to condemn it.

While Number 10 distanced itself from the letter, Jo Johnson appeared on BBC Radio 4's Today programme on Wednesday and revealed that Heaton-Harris was researching a book about historical British views of Europe. Many commentators scoffed at that excuse, especially as the book had not been mentioned by Johnson, Number 10 or Heaton-Harris the day before. Nor was it mentioned in the whip's letter. Sally Hunt described Johnson's attempt at defending the letter as feeble and wrote to him seeking urgent clarification on his and the government's stance on academic freedom.

Then on Thursday the Daily Mail disregarded any attempt at being subtle with an attack on universities, academics and anyone that might not support Brexit. Echoing its widely lambasted attack on judges from last year, that critics said invoked Nazi-style propaganda, the paper hung its outrage that universities are in the main opposed to Brexit on an 11-month old survey.

Commentators were quick to point out that it was perhaps not a surprise that experts who have studied European affairs and researched the likely impact of Brexit have their concerns. UCU said universities were celebrated around the world and the fact that the Daily Mail sought to bash them, rather than celebrate them, exposed its unsubtle attempt to find scapegoats for the unfolding Brexit disaster.

The Mail even set up an email address - university@dailymail.co.uk - which encouraged people to shop examples of pro-Brexit bias on campus, the New Statesman picked out some of the responses that had been shared on Twitter. Worryingly, Times Higher Education predicted efforts to make campuses more pro-Brexit earlier this year in a piece that they completely made up for April Fool's Day.

 

Telegraph forced to apologise after "lying through its teeth" in decolonisation story

The Mail was also among the papers to run a factually inaccurate story about supposed efforts to "decolonise" Cambridge University's English literature course by a group of students. The Telegraph put a picture of Cambridge University Students' Union women's officer Lola Olufemi on its front page on Wednesday and said she had forced Cambridge to "drop white authors".

The coverage prompted the University of Cambridge to clarify that she had not done anything of the sort, and issue a statement condemning her harassment on social media.

The New Statesman did not hold back in its criticism of the Telegraph, saying it had "lied through its ink-stained teeth", while Priyamvada Gopal, a senior English lecturer at Cambridge told Buzzfeed that the Telegraph's subsequent apology was "very weak" and didn't to take responsibility for the fact that it unnecessarily and dangerously racialised the situation.

Speaking to Woman's Hour, Olufemi said she was shocked and dismayed that the Telegraph could run such a factually incorrect piece and make her the story, which the Guardian also covered.

 

Give pupils a two-grade break to widen access

Giving pupils from poorer backgrounds a "two-grade break" could lead to 50 per cent more pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds being admitted to selective universities, said a Sutton Trust report released yesterday.

Speaking to the Scotsman Sally Hunt said: 'Instead of lots of separate tweaks from different universities, which is likely to further confuse applicants, we need a radical overhaul of the system. We believe that getting pupils to apply to university after they get their results would be one massive step in the right direction.'

More on the problems with a system based on predicted grades can be found here.

 

Strikes at University of Manchester

UCU members at the University of Manchester walked out on Monday and Tuesday this week in a dispute over up to 140 job losses at the university. They returned to work on Wednesday and began working to rule.

UCU has questioned the university's rationale for the job cuts. In a recent survey of staff conducted by union members, 88% of respondents said they did not believe they have been provided with a convincing rationale for the job losses. The union says staff were not given the opportunity to have their say on the proposals which were drawn up by senior managers.

UCU regional official, Martyn Moss, said: 'Striking is always a last resort and the university has had every opportunity to avoid it. The University of Manchester must take compulsory redundancies off the table.'

 

Edge Hill University managers found guilty of fraud

Commenting on guilty verdicts handed down to two Edge Hill University managers, UCU said the university had serious questions to answer about its governance structures. Dean of the faculty of education Robert Smedley, 52, of Grange Farm Crescent, West Kirby, Wirral, was found guilty of five counts of fraud. Christopher Joynson, 34, of Clocktower Apartments at Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland was found guilty of four counts of fraud. They will be sentenced on Monday 30 October.

Sally Hunt said: 'This case highlights serious questions that the senior management of Edge Hill University have to answer over governance - something UCU has raised concerns about in the past.  Any attempt by the university to portray itself as the victim in this case would be wholly inappropriate. The real victims are taxpayers, students and staff, and the whole sorry episode brutally exposes how a lack of transparency in universities can leave them vulnerable to fraud.'

 

UCU brands University of Bath pay committee change a "worthless stunt"

UCU has labelled the decision to remove University of Bath vice-chancellor Dame Glynis Breakwell from the committee that sets her pay a "worthless stunt." The union said the move looked like a "cynical ploy to try and stem the tide of damaging media stories about the vice-chancellor's pay and perks".

President of Bath UCU Dr Michael Carley told the Times: 'Of course the vice-chancellor shouldn't be on the board that sets her pay. There should be student and staff representation on that committee and without a proper overhaul this change looks just like a worthless stunt.'

Last updated: 27 October 2017

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