Peter Knight: Academics must have their freedom

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The Independent Online

The Office of the Independent Adjudicator, newly established by the Higher Education Bill, is an excellent idea.

The Office of the Independent Adjudicator, newly established by the Higher Education Bill, is an excellent idea. It provides, for the first time, an independent appeal for students who have complaints against their universities. The ancient and ineffective system of appeal to the University Visitor, often a nearby bishop or minor royal, is swept away, and a modern efficient system is introduced to provide speedy redress of student grievances.

Universities already try hard to act on complaints but there will always be some cases where it will not be possible to resolve the complaint to the satisfaction of the student. This may be because of a conflict of evidence or, more likely, because what the student is seeking by way of redress - perhaps a pass mark rather than a fail - is simply not within the power of the university to award. Even if the OIA is unable to resolve such complaints to the complete satisfaction of the student, at least there has been an external review of the case and the chance is reduced of an expensive and perhaps pointless pursuit through the courts.

In many universities, the role of the Visitor also included hearing staff complaints and appeals. It is likely that this visitorial responsibility will also be abolished by the Higher Education Bill. An important policy question has to be what responsibility, if any, the OIA should have in relation to staff grievances. One idea that has been proposed is that the OIA should be able to hear staff com- plaints that relate to issues of "academic freedom". A knee-jerk reaction from vice-chancellors - and my knee jerked as far and as fast as anyone else's - is that this would be unacceptable.

There is a perception that the cry of "academic freedom" is all too often the last refuge of an academic rogue and scoundrel who is trying to argue against a reasoned and sensible proposal of the university management. But with the old visitorial system dismantled, is it really safe to leave the important issue of academic freedom entirely to the university management to decide?

There are several adequate definitions of academic freedom. They all tend to recognise the right of the academic to "challenge perceived wisdom and explore controversial topics", but the definition gets tested when academic analysis moves into areas that are close to the boundaries of what is socially or culturally acceptable. Academic freedom is more likely to become an issue when study intrudes on the areas that cause the university management sleepless nights. Challenging topics might include research directly against the interests of a major benefactor, direct criticism of NHS protocols, almost anything to do with the Middle East conflict and Israeli-Arab relations, and everything to do with issues of race. All of these topics are fraught with difficulties and dangers as laws conflict and collide and the absoluteness of the concept of academic freedom is questioned.

There is an unspoken rule that says that the very academics who are intellectually attracted to exploring controversial issues are exactly the same individuals who have the highest level of irritation to university management in other aspects of university life. When their rights are challenged, the prospect of defending them against whatever external onslaught is heading their way may be low on the university "to-do" list. I wish it was otherwise.

So could universities be trusted to defend academic freedom? I'd conclude, yes, probably, most of the time. But "probably" is not good enough when you are deciding one of the few remaining fundamental values of academic life, so an external appeal to the OIA may be the only safeguard of an important but complex principle.

If academic freedom does become the prerogative of the OIA, then all other rights and privileges that exist in universities that confer protections on staff should be removed. I see no reason why all university staff should not receive exactly the same protection under employment law as any other employee in the country. That equality and parity of treatment is the price of OIA having oversight of academic freedom. It is a price well worth paying.

The writer is vice-chancellor of the University of Central England