David Harvie
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David Harvie

Statement on academic freedom and trans inclusion

I’m proud to have helped draft this statement on trans inclusion and academic freedom —without the former, the latter isn’t possible — which we invited all candidates for election to NEC in spring 2020 to sign. The list of signatories is here.

We write this statement to affirm our commitment to protect and expand academic freedom while also upholding and safeguarding the rights of transgender, non-binary, intersex and gender diverse colleagues and students. The right of transgender, non-binary, and gender diverse people to self-identify in no way threatens academic freedom. Claims to the contrary not only undermine the dignity of our colleagues and students but also divert attention from those forces which are increasingly undermining academic freedom in the United Kingdom.

In 1997 UNESCO published clear recommendations on academic freedom. Although many universities in the UK reference this document, their policies frequently exclude two key recommendations, namely those concerning self-governance and the right to criticise one’s own employer:

Higher-education teaching personnel should have the right and opportunity, without discrimination of any kind, according to their abilities, to take part in the governing bodies and to criticize the functioning of higher education institutions, including their own, while respecting the right of other sections of the academic community to participate, and they should also have the right to elect a majority of representatives to academic bodies within the higher education institution.

(See USSbriefs71, authored by Mike Finn and Jo Grady.)

Yet criticism of the functioning of HE institutions is becoming more difficult to sustain: in the past few years there have been increasing instances of universities disciplining academics for making negative comments about their employers and allegedly bringing ‘the brand into disrepute’. More generally, punitive funding regimes, ‘research selectivity’ (REF and, before it, RAE), the abolition of tenure and employers’ increasing use of precarious contracts have led to an environment in which research is shaped — and sometimes almost completely determined — by external forces: the priorities of government, funders and private companies. We also note that the ‘hostile environment’ and punitive border regime reinforced by the ‘Prevent’ duty further constrain academic freedom for both university staff and students. We do not believe such a situation, in which these priorities are shaping research and hijacking the definition of ‘the public good’ is good for the sector, nor for society as a whole.

In FE, ACE and prison education staff are not covered by the right to academic freedom and often silenced by oppressive management or subject to disciplinary sanctions and threats to career when speaking up critically about institutional practices or on issues of inequality, including Prevent. Rather than undermining the limited freedom of these colleagues, the extension of rights to trans and non-binary people is in the spirit of removing the barriers to self-expression and political identity so heavily policed in these sectors.

However, media stories about loss of academic freedom rarely make any reference to these developments. Instead, such stories increasingly deploy the principle of ‘academic freedom’ in a way that undermines the dignity and threatens the safety of transgender, non-binary and gender-diverse people. Furthermore, we are very worried that some members of our union contribute to or reinforce such stories. We unreservedly reject as unfounded claims that posit that inclusion and respect of transgender, non-binary and gender diverse people is in opposition to academic freedom. We affirm the right of everyone to be who they are, to express their gender identities in ways that are most appropriate for them, and to have those identities acknowledged and respected.

In the coming years we are likely to see more attempts to engineer and amplify ‘controversies’ that will sow confusion and insecurity on campuses. Talks — defended in the name of ‘free speech’ and ‘academic freedom’ — by neo-fascists and transphobes will suit that agenda very well. As trade unionists we must stand firm in denouncing such manufactured controversies.

Universities should be inclusive spaces: our safeguarding of the dignity and self-determination of trans, non-binary, intersex and other gender diverse colleagues and students should be central to our mission as university workers and as trade unionists. Such safeguarding does not threaten the dignity and integrity of other colleagues and students and must be a non-negotiable and indivisible part of our wider campaign for academic freedom.

We encourage other candidates for elected positions in UCU to join us in signing this statement.

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Sacked by University of Leicester. Former Communications Officer & Vice-Chair of Leicester UCU. Former member of UCU’s NEC. Now selling labour-power by the hour to Leeds University & standing for election to NEC again. Member of UCU Commons. Part of Aftermathematics collective.

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David Harvie

David Harvie

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