Labor fears OfS academic freedom professional cronyism

Britain’s new director of free speech and academic freedom must be impartial, shadow higher education minister says, despite failing in bid to stop party political donors from being appointed to this position.

Applications have been opened for the £99,164-a-year job that will sit on the board of the Students’ Office, despite legislation ordering its creation still making its way through the House of Commons.

A job description for the full-time position states that the director will oversee the “promotion of the importance of freedom of expression and academic freedom in higher education” as well as “the implementation and operation of ‘a new complaints system for individuals’.

Candidates will be required to demonstrate that they possess “strategic and influential leadership skills”, a “demonstrated commitment to consistently and publicly uphold the values ​​of free speech and academic freedom” and the “ability to manage and to drive industry-wide change.”

Matt Western, Labor MP for Warwick and Leamington, said the ‘Orwellian’ post would be given ‘extensive powers’ by the government if the Higher Education (Free Speech) Bill is passed, including the possibility of imposing fines on institutions if they are found to be in violation of the law.

“They will be solely responsible for ensuring that universities and student unions uphold their free speech duties, acting as judge, jury and executioner in free speech complaints,” a- he said during a debate in the House of Commons on the legislation.

Mr Western said the Government used to appoint Conservative Party supporters to these types of posts, citing the appointment of Lord Wharton – who led Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign – as President of the OfS, despite its lack of previous experience in higher education. .

The shadow minister tried to change the law so that anyone who has donated to a political party in the past three years would be exempt from the position and parliament would have the final say on who is appointed, but this was rejected .

“We need more process, we need more transparency, we need an honest approach to this if we’re going to clean up our politics,” he said ahead of the vote.

He also pointed out that the position’s job description posted online did not list legal expertise as one of the skills for the position.

Mr Western said he saw this as a necessity “given the sensitivity, importance and delicacy that some of these cases will become”.

He was speaking as the bill returned to the Commons after a 300-day wait since it was last debated in committee.

Introducing the debate, Higher Education Minister Michelle Donelan said legislation was needed because students had to “self-censor” on campus, academics were “bullied” because of their opinions and that legitimate speakers and guests were “no platform” and “verbally or physically abused”. on campus.

She said it would oblige providers “not only to protect but to promote” free speech and academic freedom and also impose those obligations directly on student unions. The new director of the OfS board will provide ‘effective enforcement mechanisms’ to ensure the legislation is not ‘toothless’, she said.

Speaking about Labor’s amendment which sought to prevent party donors from taking on the role of director, Ms Donelan said the country has a ‘robust’ public appointments process which does not bar people who are members of political parties . It would not be “coherent” to name the post of director differently from other members of the OfS board, she added.

The Government’s own amendment which would ensure overseas funding for English higher education providers would be controlled by the industry regulator has been passed and added to the Bill.

tom.williams@timeshighereducation.com

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