We are members of the University and College Union (UCU). Some of us have been active in organising in branches, including in past industrial disputes. The following reflects strong disagreements we have with the orientation of our union, manifest in the current motions that have been proposed to our Congress and sector conferences to be held on 28–30 October 2020.
It is essential that universities remain places where academics can pursue their research and teaching freely, without censure or policing on the basis of the political and ideological commitments of others. Students, too, should not feel that ideas they have or positions they hold should not be articulated or up for debate. We, and UCU, have long supported this in relation to pressure from our government, funders and from other governments. Academic freedom should be sacrosanct. We note that motions submitted to the conference around Prevent and the surveillance of overseas students are progressive in this regard.
However, we note a trend in recent years for our union to take positions that encourage our employers and academic departments to formalise certain political positions as those of the institution / department, and therefore to place research, teaching and indeed individual academics and students associated with other views in an invidious position.
At the upcoming conference, motions submitted to the union include the following statements:
- Conference believes that members in further, higher, adult and prison education must fully support the BLM movement and that UCU branches must play an active role in delivering an anti-racist workplace.
- Conference resolves to consider and implement a plan of action, including if necessary the use of industrial action if the above calls [for decolonising the curriculum and our institutions] are not heeded.
- Congress resolves to dismantle the exclusivity of cis and hetero normativities in all UCU work; to develop branch action plans challenging the use of academic freedom arguments against LGBT+ people
- Congress rejects attempts to cloak anti-trans campaigning and views with spurious ‘free speech’ or academic freedom arguments.
Many employers have embraced elements of critical race theory, decoloniality and ‘white privilege’, and some have openly endorsed these as university values. One university VC proposed compulsory ‘unconscious bias’ and ‘white privilege’ training for all staff and students. Universities have also formally adopted the Stonewall Charter, which takes a particular view on gender and sex at odds with that of many members of UCU and the public.
So the trend in UCU, and also amongst senior management teams and VCs, is to adopt particular political positions as values for the institution. The academic freedom of staff who do not hold these values is compromised by their formal adoption by their employers. This is especially important in Universities, given their role as crucibles of knowledge creation and critical thought.
Academic freedom and freedom of speech are vital precisely because they enable individuals – staff and students – to develop knowledge and pursue truth as they see it, not as others would have them see it. These principles guarantee the ability of individuals holding views supportive of BLM, critical race theory, decolonisation and many other views to research and teach without the threat of censure. Equally they guarantee the same for contrary views. They are values that we defend regardless of wider political affiliations.
As a union, our role should be to defend members’ jobs and conditions. Yet those supporting the motions encouraging institutions to formally adopt certain positions should be explicit as to whether they would defend a staff member who spoke against BLM, insisted that they did not intend to ‘decolonise the curriculum’ on their course, openly held ‘gender-critical’ views, or opposed no platforming and supported freedom of speech for any of these views. These are important questions for trade unionists in the light of the motions being discussed at congress. Given recent events in France, would UCU defend a lecturer who in the context of their teaching showed cartoons that offended religious sensibilities?
We call on UCU conference attendees, and members generally, to reflect on the damaging impact of these motions, and other positions and statements from our union, on academic freedom and freedom of speech. We do not see the role of the union as encouraging employers to police the views of union members, or indeed, doing so itself. This development compromises UCU’s capacity to defend lecturers’ academic freedom, freedom of speech and thought on campus, and potentially in individual cases lecturers’ jobs too.