The struggle for academic freedom

The recent arrest of two university members over political research fits into a broader picture - the relentless corporatisation of our universities, and the disastrous results that follow. University of Nottingham alumnus and academic Jeremy Bates looks at the struggle between marketisation, and resistance.

Features - Posted on Friday, January 9, 2009 4:18 - 2 Comments

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Jeremy Bates

The recent arrests of Hicham Yezza and Rizwaan Sabir, a member of staff and a student at the University of Nottingham, and the unprecedented protest campaign that is following demonstrate quite starkly the gulf that has opened up within academia. On the one side are the managers and policy makers, those with business models and strong links with the political establishment, who are keen that issues should be dealt with by those with authority and that there should not be any debate about it. On the other side are those staff and students who feel that the university should not simply be another corporate environment, but that academic study is an opportunity to explore and express ideas, sometimes dangerous ideas, with the enrichment and empowerment of people and society as its goal. Critical investigation of ‘the facts’ is, they contend, what university should be all about.

The former viewpoint is tied firmly to the power structures that exist within society, seeing education as a route to employment and production, and research as something that should have commercial applications. Education is viewed as a commodity, a service that students pay for and that staff are employed to provide. The value of this commodity is threatened by the existence of political movements that reject economic values in favour of freedom and solidarity, and any eruption of such movements must be contained and undermined.

Those who run the University of Nottingham are keen to impress their state and corporate patrons by maintaining business as usual. By siding fully with the police and intelligence services over the ‘terror’ arrests, they are attempting to suppress what has become a very embarrassing case for them. They have chosen to smear the individuals at the centre of the controversy and undermine their credibility rather than support them because they are opponents of academic and political freedom. Their vision for the university uncritically accepts the values of global neoliberal capitalism. In this context, the students and staff who oppose the university’s actions form a resistance to the imposition of hierarchical economic rule of the academy, in favour of mutual aid and autonomy.

Commodify and conquer
The events in Nottingham are a small part of an international struggle against the commodification of knowledge. In recent years, attempts to enshrine neoliberal economics in academia have led to major student protests and occupations of university buildings across the world. To give just a flavour of the breadth of this struggle, the past few years have seen major student strikes and occupations take place across France against the privatisation of universities, Israeli students blocking roads in opposition to the imposition of tuition fees, Nigerian students blockading their universities in a protest against fees, riots in Durban and walkouts in the Philippines.

The UK, in its role as Europe’s neoliberal pioneer, is ahead of the pack when it comes to the commercialisation of education. The privatisation and fees that are so hotly contested throughout much of the rest of world are already firmly in place here. Fees in higher education were introduced following the publication of the Dearing Report, whose lead author, Lord Dearing, was chancellor of the University of Nottingham at the time. Dearing foresaw the university becoming “a significant force in regional economies as a source of income and employment.” The extent to which the modern university moulds itself to the needs of business is made clear in the University of Nottingham Registrars Department response to the government White Paper for Higher Education in 2003: “HE should develop good knowledge of employer needs in each vocational area. There will be an expectation that we will work more closely with employers on matters such as curriculum development.”

University of Nottingham academics Robinson and Tormey, commenting on the government’s recent White Paper on Higher Education, describe the effect of this commodification of education: “Being forced – “having” – to conform to a neo-liberal image of oneself as a “business” … is not freedom or enablement, but coercion into a system of control and limitation.” The university becomes an instrument of the state and the economy, and extends that instrumentalism towards its students and staff.

Resistance, however, is not dead. In recent years students at the University of Sussex and the University of Manchester have occupied university buildings in protests against the commodification of education. Another common flashpoint is the corporate careers fair. Numerous universities have experienced confrontations between angry students and representatives of those companies deemed most ethically dubious. Most famously, the George Fox 6, a group of students who attempted to disrupt a ‘Corporate Venturing’ conference at the University of Lancaster, ended up being successfully prosecuted by their own university for their actions. This is not the only example of a university working with the forces of law and order to stifle protest at the expense of students. After the occupation of its library by protestors in 2006 the University of Sussex initiated legal proceedings against a number of individuals. The University of Manchester brought in police, armed with the Facebook profiles of supportive students, in an attempt to defend its buildings from a Reclaim the Uni demonstration. Rather than enter into negotiations with aggrieved students and staff, university authorities have tended to persecute those that they see as the trouble makers leaving the fundamental direction of their economic plans unchallenged.

It’s not just student activism that has been repressed by universities. Government directives have ensured that university authorities are enmeshed into the national security apparatus and the climate of fear over terrorism. Surveillance of students and control of their access to resources and buildings is increasingly common. This surveillance is, as encouraged by recent government reports, concentrated on Muslim students and those with an Asian appearance, in an echo of the racism found in ‘terrorism prevention’ throughout the UK. Universities have been advised to form close links with Special Branch and local police forces to “root out terrorism”. In 2007, four University of Bradford students were convicted of “glorifying Islamic terrorism” after downloading material from the internet, and jailed for between 2 and 3 years. There was no evidence that any of the students were materially involved in the preparation or carrying out of terrorist acts, but the downloading of certain documents, readily available on the internet, was considered serious enough to warrant these sentences. Material presented for the prosecution case included travel plans to a “training camp” in Pakistan made on a university computer. Presumably Bradford University authorities were complicit in the arrest of their own students. To what extent surveillance and profiling of students by their political beliefs is carried out by universities is unknown.

The priorities of the University of Nottingham are not different to those of other universities when it comes to defending the interests of business and dealing with political dissent. Whether is is the relentless pursuit of business opportunities on its China campus, the denial of improvements in pay and conditions to staff or aiding the arrests of student protesters, it is clear that the university is willing to be ruthless in the pursuit of a depoliticised commercial environment.

The Chinese business
Nowhere can the university’s true motives be seen more clearly than in its much vaunted China project. The branch of the University of Nottingham in Ningbo, China is run by a CEO, a business rather than an academic title. The first CEO was Professor Ian Gow, formerly the director of Nottingham’s business school. The campus is located in what is described as a ‘Dynamic Education Zone’ and is seen as a flagship project for Chinese-UK relations. According to Professor Douglas Tallack, Nottingham’s pro-vice chancellor for internationalisation, “There is a great deal of interest from the UK government in this venture and we will be keeping the Department for Education and Science fully informed of our progress.”. Apparently Nottingham is participating in a move by the Chinese authorities to “modernise the Higher Education system”.

The language is that of a business partnership, closely overseen by the Chinese and British states. Professor Tallack is quite candid about Nottingham’s motivations for getting involved: “enhancing profile, reputation and influence, in an international context, expanding opportunities for faculty and students, for research collaboration and students abroad, opening up opportunities for commercialisation and sponsorship.” It is about taking the Nottingham brand to new markets and making money. “We hope that our example will be of assistance in overall UK-Sino relations, establishing valuable links in trade and culture as well as education.” On the opening of the new campus, the BBC noted that “China will be an important market for higher education – as well as business – and Nottingham is seeking to gain an early foothold.”

The university is keen to deflect the criticism that it was endorsing a regime renowned for censorship and repression. “Censorship or human rights abuses would damage a venture that is valued on the Chinese side as well as on our side,” according to Professor Tallack. In a press release the university claimed that it would “extend to its China campus its approach of working with Chinese institutions, presenting students with a balanced viewpoint, and teaching different ways (with more independent thinking). The university believes this will sit well with current programmes of reform and modernization in China itself.” The Nottingham approach would be to “build sensible academic control” into the venture.

This is fine rhetoric but, in reality, keeping the sensitive Chinese authorities onside has taken precedence. Chinese law requires universities to stock 100 books per student. Rather than spending money getting new books relevant to the courses at Ningbo, the university is moving 60,000 books and journals from Nottingham to China, in spite of opposition from the schools affected. Library staff told academics from the schools effected that they felt gagged over the issue, and those who have spoken out have found themselves threatened by more senior management. The number includes publications relevant to courses that are not even taught at Ningbo, such as medieval history and theology. If one of the books is needed by an academic in Nottingham the university has proposed to fly it back. Perhaps staff concern about the rationality of such a move was an example of “an insensitive imposition of Western practices” that Professor Tallack felt needed to be guarded against? As an angry letter written to the Times Higher Education about the affair said: “Profit, it would seem, takes priority over scholarship.”

Industrial disputes
It could also be said that the university prioritises profit over fair treatment of its staff. The university has run into trouble with staff unions on multiple occasions for its dismissive attitude towards staff claims for better pay and conditions. Most famously, Nottingham was ‘greylisted’ by the Association of University Teachers (AUT, now part of the University and Colleges Union, UCU ) after the union claimed that the university had backtracked on previous commitments relating to a national pay deal. An AUT member writing in The Guardian described the university’s proposal as “an over-complicated and unfair pay structure that departs from nationally agreed pay scales,” and detailed the management’s “evasiveness and bullying of staff into tearing up their contracts.” According to a union representative “the management have consistently ignored and undermined the national agreement on pay.” A particularly controversial part of the university’s plan was the introduction of performance related pay, entailing greater surveillance and diminished autonomy of staff.

In spite of the union offering to enter into negotiations until the eleventh hour, university management claimed that the threat of greylisting foreclosed the possibility of any negotiation and ignored the union’s position. According to a university spokesman: “Nottingham is determined to pursue a policy of paying competitive salaries and providing opportunities for career development to all groups of staff.” The greylisting, an international academic boycott of the university and “the ultimate professional sanction”, was in place for 3 months. Whilst some staff were predicted to end up with a £9,000 pay cut over 6 years as a result of the university’s deal, university Vice Chancellor, Sir Colin Campbell, received a 23% pay rise in the following academic year, bringing his annual salary to £221,000. The university successfully managed to impose greater control on staff’s productivity and redistributed wealth and power to the top.

Students as clients
An important landmark in the commodification of education in the UK was the introduction of fees for students. This fundamentally changed the relationship between the university and the student. Where students formerly saw education as a right, they began to see it as a service provided by educational institutions. The emphasis became on passive consumption of the commodity of education and universities became the overseers of a smooth and uncomplicated delivery of this service.

As universities increasingly took on the role of a business, their economic interests became paramount. A new emphasis was placed on students and staff sticking to the rules and not damaging the university brand and market placement. These values seem to be of more importance to universities than academic freedom. For example, Nottingham notoriously accepted £3.8m from British American Tobacco (BAT), a company making profit from the sale of a highly addictive and carcinogenic product, in order to fund their Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility. The cash seemed to be more important to university managers than any possible conflicts of interest within the university. Numerous cancer researchers, and indeed whole research teams, moved elsewhere in protest. Nottingham also receives large amounts of funding from big oil and arms companies for research in engineering, offers them access to students for recruitment purposes and is happy to enter into economic partnerships with the likes of Starbucks, a company renowned for its unethical practices. It is an environment where corporate values, big money and big names flourish at the expense of critical thought.

Fortunately not all students are happy with this state of affairs and recent years have seen a plethora of protests and campaigns against the corporate invasion of the university. From arms dealers getting their materials destroyed at careers fairs to die-ins for ethical investment and the campaign to replace Starbucks coffee with a less harmful alternative, student activism has been growing. The Nottingham Student Peace Movement (NSPM) was started in 2001 in response to the UK’s involvement in the bombing of Afghanistan. Since then it has mobilised students to protest against the invasion of Iraq, provided a space for radical academics to speak and exchange ideas, published Ceasefire, a political magazine, kickstarted a campaign for ethical investment at the university and been involved in anti-nuclear weapons direct action. This year the NSPM has organised two successful conferences, on solutions to climate change and civil liberties. More recently, a group of staff and students has formed to take action around the issue of free speech and academic freedom. They have set out to defend students involved in protest against repression.

These protest movements are a threat to the depoliticised space required to attract business investment to the university and, as a result, the university has sought to repress and harass activists and undermine their campaigns. Police have been called onto campus to break up demonstrations, covert surveillance of protests has been noted, students have been arrested under spurious charges and, most recently, prominent student activists have had accusations that they are terrorists levelled against them. The level of repression has been ratcheted up as the protest movements have grown in size and visibility.

Three prominent arrests on campus have brought the ongoing low-level struggle to a head. Firstly, in November 2007, student Rizwaan Sabir was arrested for intervening between pro-Palestinian protesters and police who had been called in to end their protest. The protesters had set up a ‘wall’ that blocked one path to the Hallward Library, in protest against the wall Israel is erecting in the Palestinian Occupied Territories, and were refusing campus security requests to move it. Security called in the police to force protesters to take down the wall. The officers acted aggressively and threatened the protesters with arrest for a number of alleged offences (including the mythical charge of “filming a police officer”) before arresting Sabir “to apprehend a breach of the peace”. Many students and staff were angered by the decision to use the police and by the arrest of a student to end a peaceful protest, and formed a group in defence of free speech. They held a mass rally attracting around 100 participants in February of this year.

It was in this atmosphere that the “anti-terror” raids in May were carried out. Police were called onto campus after a downloaded copy of the al-Qaida training manual was found on the computer of Hicham Yezza. Hich is a former postgraduate student who was working as the Principal School Administrator of the School of Modern Languages and had been sent the document by his friend, Rizwaan Sabir. Rizwaan was researching terrorism for his Master’s degree, had asked Hicham for assistance in drafting his PhD proposal on the same subject. Even the most cursory of investigations into the origins of the document by university authorities should have cleared the two of any involvement in terrorist activity, but the university has insisted that based on a “risk assessment” they felt that it was necessary to call in the police, who subsequently arrested Hicham and Rizwaan under the Terrorism Act. Rizwaan, of course, had also recently been arrested for his role in the Palestine demo earlier in the academic year. During the six days they were held for questioning, Hich, who is the editor of Ceasefire, was interrogated extensively about his involvement in student politics and certain contributions to the magazine. In addition, several of his close friends and associates were brought in for questioning about student politics. That the student peace movement’s magazine should be linked to alleged terrorists was an irony that was evidently lost on Special Branch. Of course, given that there was no evidence that the pair were involved in terrorism and the simple academic explanation that was backed up by Rizwaan’s supervisor, the two were released without terror charges being brought against them.

However, desperate to save face after the very public and very embarrassing over reaction, the forces of law and order claimed to have found irregularities with Hich’s immigration status and placed him in detention. In a very unusual move, the Home Office initiated proceedings for a fast-track deportation. They clearly wanted to wipe their hands of him and quash the political movement that had grown up in protest against the extreme heavy handedness of the university and police. Fortunately, Hich’s lawyers were able to successfully appeal for bail and, after a month in police cells and immigration prisons, Hich was released. He is still awaiting trial on the immigration charge but is confident of clearing his name.

From the start, the university authorities were quick to distance themselves from Hicham and Rizwaan. Statements were made suggesting that Hich was in the wrong for agreeing to print the document, as if that made the university’s own position of having handed him over to the police somehow more principled. They also suggested that, as a non-academic member of staff, he was not entitled to access these documents. Implicit in this is the suggestion that non-academics are more corruptible as they don’t have the necessary skills to be as discerning as their academic colleagues. Rather than stand in solidarity with a valued employee and alumnus, the university took a suspicious and distrustful stance.

This outraged many staff and students who felt that academic freedom was being overridden by this obsession with security, a feeling which culminated in a solidarity demonstration of around 500 people – the largest demonstration the campus had ever seen. Important links were forged between campaigners on campus and other anti-deportation campaigns in Nottingham, broadening the opposition to the university’s stance beyond the confines of University Park. Researchers complained of having to self-censor in order to avoid the same fate befalling them. People were appalled that to be a politically active Muslim student seemed to equal being a terrorist in the eyes of the university and the police. Indeed, the statement of one the arresting officers made to an academic member of staff – that the arrests would never have been made if those under suspicion had been white – vindicated the feelings of many that racism and islamophobia played no small part in the events. Alf Nilsen, a lecturer in the school of politics, said that the incident “says something about the potential implications of being politically active on campus in a time where a culture of fear merges with draconian terror legislation.”

Much of the anger has been directed at the university’s attempts to define what is and what isn’t legitimate research. In contorted statements, Sir Colin Campbell has stated that students do not have an automatic right to possess materials such as the manual in question, and must be able to justify having such materials to the police. Those who do take such materials into their possession “run the risk of being investigated and prosecuted on terrorism charges.” In such a climate, academic freedom disappears to be replaced by subservience to power. The academics who had previously either been unaware of the changing climate on campus, or had held their tongues, started coming out of the woodwork. A letter from 67 concerned members of staff was sent to the vice chancellor and some have been openly critical of the university in a bitter dispute on the pages of the Times Higher Education. The incident seems to have been a turning point that has brought many aggrieved staff and students out into open opposition to the university.

Striking back
Whilst it is clear that in the current climate at our university the penalties for holding dissident views and exploring radical ideas are great, it is also increasingly clear that the cost of not doing anything is worse. Through the mass demonstrations of solidarity, students and staff have forced the university to recognise that the ideal of an education production line is contested and that it will be fought against. It has also made many in the resistance aware that they are not alone and given them the confidence to speak out. People are starting to realise that they have to actively defend their interests if they are to retain any of the freedoms traditionally associated with academic life.
Unfortunately resistance has tended to be issue-based. Many lack awareness of the ‘bigger picture’ of which the current debates about academic freedom are but one feature. For too long protests against ethical investment have been isolated from staff labour disputes which have been separate from the campaign against top-up fees, and so on. The Hich case seems to have brought many of these formerly disparate elements together into a broader and more comprehensive rejection of the values of the management. We need to continue to join up these dots if we are to have lasting impact. If students are informed about and stand in solidarity with striking lecturers, the strike has more weight. If those opposing Shell’s predatory graduate recruitment make the links between corporate funding and the erosion of academic freedom, their protests will start joining up with a much wider struggle.
The signs are promising that, with the unprecedented amount of pressure on the university authorities over their disregard for students, staff and the academic values they claim to uphold, those who oppose the commodification of education are winning concessions. The pressure must be kept up and increased if a wider consciousness of the struggle is to be turned into meaningful change.

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Macdonald Daly
Apr 14, 2009 14:25

Mr Bates refers to “our” University. I cannot find him listed as a student of the University of Nottingham or as a member of staff. Could he please tell us his affiliation to the University of Nottingham?

JJ
Apr 29, 2009 20:02

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