Noth­ing new in chal­lenge to au­ton­omy

THE (Times Higher Education) - - LETTERS -

The MP Chris Heaton-Har­ris’ “po­lite re­quest” for vicechan­cel­lors to pro­vide de­tails of course con­tent about “the teach­ing of Euro­pean af­fairs, with par­tic­u­lar ref­er­ence to Brexit” (“Min­is­ter un­der pres­sure over MP’s ‘McCarthyite’ let­ter”, News, 2 Novem­ber) is not the first chal­lenge to aca­demic au­ton­omy.

In the 1980s, un­der a pre­vi­ous Tory gov­ern­ment, an early morn­ing broad­cast of an in­ter­view with Cheshire’s di­rec­tor of ed­u­ca­tion about the Great Ed­u­ca­tion Re­form Bill, as part of an Open Univer­sity course on ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy and pro­vi­sion, re­sulted in a call from the Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion and Sci­ence de­mand­ing a right of re­ply. We had to ex­plain that this was the OU equiv­a­lent of a vis­it­ing lec­turer in a class­room, a le­git­i­mate aca­demic cri­tique, not a party po­lit­i­cal broad­cast.

We also had the fa­mous en­quiry into al­leged Marx­ist bias, trig­gered by a hand­ful of peo­ple when thou­sands took the cour­ses in­volved and broad­casts at­tracted au­di­ences of up to a quar­ter of a mil­lion. The en­quiry found no sub­stance to the claims, but even so, three stages of ex­ter­nal scru­tiny of draft ma­te­ri­als were in­tro­duced to en­sure “bal­ance” within any el­e­ment, so that one unit putting one per­spec­tive, and an­other putting a dif­fer­ent one was not al­low­able. BBC staff were very ner­vous, and I had im­posed on me right-wing con­trib­u­tors who in­sisted on be­ing sub­ject to no com­ment and no edit­ing. The ex­ter­nal as­sess­ment process deemed at least one pro­gramme im­bal­anced – to the Right! – but I ac­cepted that, be­liev­ing that my stu­dents were good enough to spot “false truths”. More in­sid­i­ously, self-cen­sor­ship re­moved a valid crit­i­cal per­spec­tive from cour­ses for sev­eral years.

Plus ça change…

Ian McNay

Pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus, higher ed­u­ca­tion and man­age­ment Univer­sity of Green­wich

Although the en­quiry found no sub­stance to claims of a Marx­ist bias at the OU, three stages of ex­ter­nal scru­tiny of ma­te­ri­als were in­tro­duced to en­sure ‘bal­ance’

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