A battleground revisited

Two years on, Lesley Gerard looks at the legacy of the `Swansea Three' affair, which challenged academic freedom
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The Independent Online
They were a cause celebre known as the Swansea Three. These lecturers complained about standards at University College, Swansea, and found themselves at the centre of the biggest "whistle-blower" scandal in higher education.

Colwyn Williamson and Mike Cohen were locked out of their office and almost lost their jobs for exposing plagiarism and criticising the quality of masters degrees awarded to fee-paying students in the philosophy of health care. The third critic, Anne Maclean, reluctantly took early retirement.

When all three were reinstated on the recommendation of a Privy Council inquiry it was hailed as a victory with far-reaching consequences for academic freedom, a defence against the dominant forces of commercialism and managerialism in higher education.

Two years later universities are facing tighter financial curbs than ever. Efficiency and competitiveness are growing obsessions. Unions insist standards are falling as pressure to educate more with less intensifies and lecturers are too frightened to speak out.

So what, if anything, did the "great battle'' in Swansea achieve? Williamson insists that the struggle - which at one stage saw him and Cohen reduced to giving lectures in a pub and later restored to campus but housed in a portable hut - was significant.

The "Swansea Three'' now run the Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards from the college; the organisation gives advice and support to academics from institutions across Britain.

"Standards are slipping everywhere. Swansea was not a special case, except that we became notorious. We are fighting against a rising tide, but I think we have done some good in the sense that we have become a spectre to other universities - no one wants another Swansea,'' says Williamson.

In 1990 four lecturers - Geoffrey Hunt, Maclean, Williamson and Cohen - complained to the University of Wales about the philosophy of health care course. Hunt subsequently took another job in London. The remaining three found themselves subject to a disciplinary hearing over allegations that they had denigrated colleagues and disrupted college life. The disciplinary committee concluded that Williamson was guilty of conduct of a "scandalous and disgraceful nature'' and should be sacked, and that Cohen should be reprimanded. Maclean had taken early retirement.

But shortly afterwards the University of Wales stripped a former nurse of his degree for plagiarism, and in July 1991 the course was criticised in an independent report by Sir Peter Swinnerton-Dyer, former head of the Universities Funding Council. The matter was finally settled when the university's visitor was called in.

Sir Michael Davies, a former high court judge appointed to head the Privy Council inquiry, reported in June 1993 that the lecturers' criticisms had "some substantial justification". He questioned whether justice was done in the disciplinary moves against them, but conceded that they may have used extravagant language.

Things have changed at Swansea since then and the college now has a new vice- chancellor, Professor Robin Williams. A spirit of greater openness prevails, according to staff. Professor Williams says: "Staff morale and self-belief need to be improved. It is important that everyone understands policy and what we are trying to achieve.''

Dr Noel Thompson, history lecturer and chair of the Association of University Teachers from 1992 to 1994, says the affair has left scars but has also had a salutary effect. "Such a scandal could never happen again because the management is so sensitive about presenting a good academic image,'' he says.