Tag Archives: Brexit

#Brexitshambles

 

One of the peculiarities of language is that the same form of words can mean entirely different things depending on the speaker/writer, the occasion, the intent and the preceding context of interaction. Chris Heaton-Harris is a Conservative MP and government whip. His unusual letter to university vice-chancellors, sent at the start of October 2017, has been brought to the attention of the press by Professor David Green, vice-chancellor of Worcester University. On face value, it bears all the hallmarks of linguistic politeness. “I was wondering if you would be so kind” and “I would be much obliged”. Nevertheless, David Green’s reaction would resonate with most academics. According to The Guardian, he felt a chill down his spine when he read the “sinister” request: “This letter just asking for information appears so innocent but is really so, so dangerous,” he says. “Here is the first step to the thought police, the political censor and newspeak, naturally justified as ‘the will of the British people’, a phrase to be found on Mr Heaton-Harris’s website.”

UCU Chair Sally Hunt has also detected “the acrid whiff of McCarthyism” while Chris Patten, Chancellor of the University of Oxford, said it was “offensive and idiotic Leninism” 

Another peculiarity of language is that meanings which are obvious to one group can be refused by another. Step forward chief Tory apologist Andrea Leadsom. In her lunchtime Radio 4 interview it is clear she was inclined towards the polite reading of Heaton-Harris’ letter. “It does seem to me to be a bit odd that universities should react in such a negative way to a fairly courteous request,” she said.

Who is to know what was in the whip’s mind? Perhaps he is genuinely interested in filling in the gaps in his knowledge of European Studies. Perhaps he wants to conduct a survey on the diversity of opinion on Brexit. But he is on record as a Euorsceptic, and universities are known to be places with a great deal to lose if the UK proceeds with separation from the European Community. The suspicion of many academics on my Twitter timeline was that Heaton-Harris was attempting a clumsy exercise in political coercion. Oddly enough, the letter evokes another activity which many academics consider inappropriate surveillance – ‘lecture capture’. There are many entirely legitimate reasons to record lectures for students to access later, but now, this incident has gifted refuseniks a really good reason to resist.

In time for the 1 o’clock news on BBC Radio 4’s World at One, Heaton-Harris tweeted: “To be absolutely clear, I believe in free speech in our universities and in having an open and vigorous debate on Brexit”. As bad luck would have it, Minister for Universities, Jo Johnson had just tweeted a couple of hours previously: “Academic freedom -which we’ve just entrenched in statute in Higher Ed &Research Bill 2017! – is core to success +better protected than ever”.

Oops. Clearly the Whips’ Office had forgotten to copy him in to the letter, and this just made Johnson’s assertion seem disingenuous, and not only because of Heaton-Harris’ blunder. For this is the government which is seeking to make scrutiny of university safeguards over academic freedom a condition for registration with the new regulator, the Office for Students. Perhaps protesting too much, Johnson bit the bullet again at 1.30pm: “Academic freedom absolutely fundamental and protected in statute in our recent Higher Education & Research Act 2017 http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2017/29/enacted …

Alistair Jarvis, Chief Executive of Universities UK moved swiftly on the UUK website to defend universities against a pernicious assault on their autonomy, “I would ask that Chris Heaton-Harris MP explains his motive for asking universities to share names of their European studies Professors, their course content and lecture notes. This request suggests an alarming attempt to censor or challenge academic freedom.” And just for good measure he decided to remind Jo Johnson that academic freedom has been enshrined in legislation since  the 1988 Education Reform Act which “ensures that academic staff have freedom to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institutions”.

So what was it that allowed Heaton-Harris’ request to be recognised as a threat, not a request? Simply, it stood out as unprecedented.  It was very specific to a controversial issue about which the government is defensive. Furthermore it asked for names of lecturers AND access to the actual lectures they delivered. It seems redolent of the recent intimidation and marginalization of climate change researchers in the US. And where goes climate change may follow research on evolution, fracking, sexuality, colonialism, petroleum engineering, election hacking and any number of other issues for which there is a prevailing body of knowledge and opinion which may unsettle politicians. Even if Heaton-Harris was motivated by desire for “an open and vigorous debate on Brexit”, he could still claim that it is impeded by a homogeneity of opinion in universities. In the United States such claims have spurred legislation to guarantee political ‘balance’ among university academics in Iowa public universities. Iowa Senate File 288, if enacted, would compel university appointment committees to consult voter registration records in order to hire comparable numbers of Democrat and Republican academics.

You’d like to think it couldn’t happen here, but these are very uncertain times in politics and education. Just as each new outrage from Donald Trump seems to allay the offensiveness of the next, we can predict interference in university autonomy will happen again, especially given the monstering that universities have endured over the summer and autumn. As Thomas Docherty tweeted, “The idea is that next time we will be less shocked. Ten times later, we will be expected to just accept it and comply. And some will, sadly.” But we must resist, and it is reassuring that Universities UK has recognised, and rejected, Heaton-Harris’ threat.

 

 

 

 

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Brexit – is this Schrödinger’s neoliberalism?

The day after what the BBC has been calling a seismic event is bound to feel rather numbing. The prospect of leaving the EU is disorienting and scary precisely because no manifesto, no roadmap has ever been presented by the quitters. Everybody is wondering what it will mean for them, and there is no guidance. We’re used to getting that much within minutes after the Chancellor’s budget statements. But today, we’re all feeling bewildered about jobs, mortgages, pensions, the NHS, tax, bendy bananas, and all the rest.

Twitter was filled with people saying how their timeline had not prepared them for this. Like me, many were connected to other left-leaning, progressive internationalists, and so had felt entitled to discount what they regarded as the kneejerk xenophobia of the uninformed. I howled in sympathy with my learned friend @Plashingvole who is profoundly immersed in the tolerant embrace of British cultural history. He cites the legacy of Paine, Wollstonecraft, Rowan Williams, Chartists, Suffragists….and the Ramblers’ Association. What, eh? Somebody forgot to tell my sister’s bloke about that. But when your whole being is infused with that radical legacy, it is hard to wonder how it could be so convincingly rejected by the majority of the nation.

However, I ended this memorable day with a renewed respect for democracy and the important lessons it teaches us.  The workers of the north east and Wales have been told for the last 40 years that their skills are out of date, their industries uncompetitive and their productivity lacking. They were the first canaries down the disused mine of neoliberalism.  How long can working people absorb austerity, unemployment, being told they need to change and be flexible….and still never be better off? The EU has meant that my class has accrued a degree of job security through transnational mobility, but that has not been extended to the steel worker in Redcar. We can point to many waystations on the road to Labour allowing its working class constituency to be displaced by a liberal elite. Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson were ‘relaxed’ about wealth accumulation (i.e. upward distribution of capital). Gordon Brown chose to paint Gillian Duffy in Rochdale as an irrational bigot. In the last election, Labour, led by Ed Milliband, shimmied rather uncomfortably around the issue of immigration, and horrified the liberal middle class voter in the process.

And so the referendum result came as a surprise to a party which saw itself as having a working class base, but broad appeal. The surprise was that the vote was divided along lines of class, privilege and education. As many commentators have pointed out, a referendum doesn’t allow for nuance and negotiation. It draws a binary divide and you are compelled to vote for one side or the other. It also captures one instant in a decision-making process and makes it a defining moment. Well, now the victims of the neoliberal constructed recession have told national and global elites to get stuffed, and they’ll take their chances with a different way – any way. We have Schrödinger’s neoliberalism – it has been both rejected but guaranteed at the same time.

Some among the national elite in government and the media rail against the rejection of ‘experts’, even though they have had a hand in undermining their claims to authority. But university leaders need not feel blameless in this. I marvel at the hypocrisy of vice-chancellors who seek to marginalise critical voices in their own universities, and then wonder why the debate has not been carried by the weight of public intellectuals.  Public intellectuals should play a role in informing opinion, but very often they come from those departments now on the danger list in many universities because they don’t bring in huge amounts of money in research grants. So when your VC emails out their post-referendum statement, ask them – where is your affirmation of academic freedom? Where is your continuing and unfettered support for history, cultural studies, literature, social sciences, politics, philosophy, international relations, modern languages?  These are the incubators of critique and framers of arguments in these crucial debates.  But when you try and subdue a university into a controversy-free, ‘managed’ zone, if you silence the radical voice, then don’t ask why the intellectuals suddenly find themselves ostracized.

Despite what has happened, I remain optimistic because these events tend to trigger moments of ‘grand narrative’.  On the one hand we can see Donald Trump, who embodies that resistance to traditional elites, surfing in on the Brexit wave. On a more hopeful front, we can envisage that this narrative of defiance and empowerment might be directed, not just against symbolic national elites, but also at authority in other locations. Perhaps this is a time for those of us who work in universities to challenge the corporate managerialists who have seized hold of universities and subverted their purpose. At the moment, if you are in arts and humanities in a university, you probably feel a bit like voters in Scotland – as if you are held in thrall by a self-interested and bungling regime which acts against your interests and values.

So it’s a big vote of thanks to academics at the University of Aberdeen and Newcastle University who are already making progress with their campaigns to take back the university for its academic citizenry. How long do you feel like being treated to the Neoliberal University bait and switch? 40 years? Time to start acting against those structures of power which have worked against fundamental academic values of education, trust, community and academic freedom. Below are the core principles from the draft manifesto of the ‘Reclaiming Our University’ group at Aberdeen:

  • To create an environment for free, open-minded and unprejudiced debate, which stands out as a beacon of wisdom, tolerance and humanity.
  • To defend our freedom to undertake research and teaching in the pursuit of truth, against the constraints, both internal and external to the institution, which threaten to curtail it.
  • To restore the trust that underpins both professionalism and collegiality, by removing those systems of line and performance management, and of surveillance, which lead to its erosion.
  • To bring together research and teaching as complementary aspects of an education that carries a responsibility of care.
  • To restore the governance of the university, and control over its affairs, to the community of staff, students and alumni to which it rightfully belongs.

Join the conversation, and organise against attacks on academic freedom and the collegiality of the university. Comments on this blog will be copied to the Aberdeen group’s site.