Academic staff suspended at Middlesex University

Three philosophers have been banned from entering university premises or contacting students.

The ongoing dispute over the future of Middlesex University's highly regarded philosophy department was ratcheted up a notch on Friday, when students and three members of the academic staff -- Professors Peter Osborne, Peter Hallward and Christian Kerslake -- were suspended from the university, pending an investigation into their role in a second occupation at the university's Trent Park campus.

Protesters entered campus buildings on Thursday 20 May and remained in the university library from 6.45pm until 8am the following morning, in a sit-in that took place six days after a previous occupation ended following the granting of a high court injunction.

According to the Save Middlesex Philosophy blog, university management responded on Thursday by locking the doors of the main campus building and contacting the police, but when officers arrived it was decided that the injunction obtained by the university on 14 May did not apply to the sit-in, and protesters were permitted to stay.

However, the university today alleged that a second group of protesters "forcibly entered the building" during the evening, thereby breaching the injunction. In a statement released to the New Statesman today, a university spokesperson said:

The university has to intervene when protest is illegal or puts the health and safety of staff at risk. On Thursday 20 May, an occupation of the library at Trent Park occurred when a group of individuals refused to leave the building, and a further group forcibly entered the building, in breach of a High Court injunction granted to the university on 14 May. The previous occupation at Trent Park resulted in assaults and injuries to members of staff who were legitimately trying to safeguard the staff and students who were working in the buildings.

The fight to save Middlesex's philosophy department is one front in a wider struggle, as university administrations find themselves forced to make substantial cuts after the government reduced the higher education budget by half a billion pounds.

The decision to suspend Osborne, Hallward and Kerslake from their posts has triggered a flurry of letters of condemnation from fellow academics.

In a letter dated 21 May, Graham Harman, associate professor of philosophy at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, wrote:

With yesterday's suspensions of Professors Hallward [and] Osborne, and several students, I fear we are seeing a merely vindictive gesture that threatens genuine long-term damage to your institution. We have heard of "outlaw nations", but never of "outlaw universities". Yet the possible danger now arises of Middlesex becoming just such a pariah. Your administrators did nothing yesterday but turn Hallward and Osborne into international martyrs. Even if all ethics and justice were taken out of the picture, the suspensions are a clumsy overreaction in purely realpolitik terms. Please: it is not too late for cooler heads to prevail.

John Protevi, professor of French studies at Louisiana State University, also wrote to the governing body, claiming that administrators were "at risk of permanently besmirching the reputation of your university" and that "an organised boycott is a real possibility at this point".

Asked how management had come to the decision to close the philosophy department at Middlesex, despite its record of achievement, the university's spokesperson said: "The university consulted at length with the staff involved for six months prior to making its decision.

"Members of the executive also conducted several meetings with philosophy staff after the decision had been made."

You can follow the campaign to save Middlesex's philosophy department by clicking here.

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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.