Turkish students protest their freedom of speech in Ankara (placards read “Universities belong to the students and they will be free with us”). Photo: Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images
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From Ukraine to the UK, academic freedom is under threat

The freedom to think, discuss and disagree is being eroded in institutions around the world.

When Resat Baris Ünlü sat down to write an exam question for his students, he didn’t suspect that the consequences would include death threats on his life.

Ünlü, a modern historian who teaches at Ankara University, asked his students a question on the 1978 Kurdistan manifesto written by Abdullah Öcalan.

But when a Turkish newspaper found out about the content of the exam question it was suggested that academics were supporting “terrorist activities” and hiding behind “the cloak of freedom of expression”.

Since the newspaper article, Ünlü has received multiple threats on his life.

This is just one incident from many around the world that we have charted in a special report about to be published in Index on Censorship magazine, that show the variety of threats to the principle that academic life is about presenting, debating and reviewing different attitudes and evidence from a multitude of sources without fear of harm.

Another case that sends out chills was the report from academic Tatyana Malyarenko in Ukraine about how the fighting in her country has led to massive divisions between those working at universities. Special committees have been set up at universities in Ukraine to uncover “separatist” attitudes among those teaching on campuses. Reports, like those made to witch trials centuries ago, are being filed by students and other faculty to these attestation committees. Those named are being calling before committees for investigation, where lecturers can end up being denounced and losing their posts. When words like “patriotism” are flung around as weapons, then leaders of nations are drawing on the bluntest, and most pathetic, of instruments to keep their citizens in check.

Faint echoes of McCarthyism cannot be ignored when you hear of the details of these accusations and those called before such committees. Those infamous trials in the US during the 1950s have dark memories for a nation where first amendment rights are often touted as fundamental to their values, and where people self-censored their views.

But today the US is certainly not immune to placing limits on what academics and students can argue. Shockingly, certain US campuses have created small free speech zones, painted areas, often in remote parts of the universities, where people are allowed to speak about “controversial” subjects. Just there. Nowhere else.  What does that say about attitudes to learning and questioning? Most people outside the US are absolutely astounded to find out about these free speech zones. “Really? They can’t possibly exist, can they?” Yes, they can, and do. These zones are small, but significant, symbols of the limitations that are appearing in each part of the globe, ranging from the ridiculous to the downright frightening.

Painting a white line around a square and saying “here is where you can do your free thinking” does nothing but undermine the idea of academic excellence being about an inquiring mind and an ability to challenge preconceptions.

Meanwhile in the UK, academic freedom is also being challenged. Over the past couple of years, Index and others have also challenged “safe space” policies adopted by many UK universities. These policies have been used to ban speakers or debates that groups of students disapprove of.

Students are freed from the cotton wool when they head off to university; they are out of the clutches of mum and dad, and get to make their own choices. Quite rightly. But they are also, many for the first time, hearing people speaking about policies, politics and ideas they might have never heard before, and with which they might vehemently disagree with. But there’s nothing wrong with that. If you are sure that your position is right, then you lose nothing by hearing the counter arguments. It might help you work out how to win over the opposing side, or, it just might, convince you to change your point. Sure, there should be a chance to argue back. Yes, panels should carry a range of positions.  But when powers that be, and even students themselves, want to wrap up their world so they can’t hear opinions they don’t like or agree with, then they are doing themselves no favours.

Trigger warnings, where students are told that passages in textbooks might cause offence and no-platforming policies are being used to close off avenues of discovery and inquiry. Putting together this report has shown that the threats to academic thought are different in different regions. But all around the world, the freedom to think, study, teach and discuss is coming under threat from a variety of forces.

That’s why it was no surprise that around 70 academics and authors have signed an open letter of concern that is printed in the upcoming magazine.

The freedom to think, discuss and disagree should be central to every institution of education, and, sadly, that idea seems under debate.

Rachael Jolley is editor of the quarterly Index on Censorship magazine, which will publish its summer edition in mid-June. Index on Censorship's debate on academic freedom is on 1 July. It is called "Silenced on Campus". Details here.

Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon is betting on Brexit becoming real before autumn 2018

Second independence referendum plans have been delayed but not ruled out.

Three months after announcing plans for a second independence referendum, and 19 days after losing a third of her Scottish National Party MPs, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon booted the prospect of a second independence referendum into the heather. 

In a statement at Holyrood, Sturgeon said she felt her responsibility as First Minister “is to build as much unity and consensus as possible” and that she had consulted “a broad spectrum of voices” on independence.

She said she had noted a “commonality” among the views of the majority, who were neither strongly pro or anti-independence, but “worry about the uncertainty of Brexit and worry about the clarity of what it means”. Some “just want a break from making political decisions”.

This, she said had led her to the conclusion that there should be a referendum reset. Nevertheless: "It remains my view and the position of this government that at the end of this Brexit process the Scottish people should have a choice about the future of our country." 

This "choice", she suggested, was likely to be in autumn 2018 – the same time floated by SNP insiders before the initial announcement was made. 

The Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie responded: “The First Minister wishes to call a referendum at a time of her choosing. So absolutely nothing has changed." In fact, there is significance in the fact Sturgeon will no longer be pursuing the legislative process needed for a second referendum. Unlike Theresa May, say, she has not committed herself to a seemingly irreversable process.

Sturgeon’s demand for a second independence referendum was said to be partly the result of pressure from the more indy-happy wing of the party, including former First Minister Alex Salmond. The First Minister herself, whose constituency is in the former Labour stronghold of Glasgow, has been more cautious, and is keenly aware that the party can lose if it appears to be taking the electorate for granted. 

In her speech, she pledged to “put our shoulder to the wheel” in Brexit talks, and improve education and the NHS. Yet she could have ruled out a referendum altogether, and she did not. 

Sturgeon has framed this as a “choice” that is reasonable, given the uncertainties of Brexit. Yet as many of Scotland’s new Labour MPs can testify, opposition to independence on the doorstep is just as likely to come from a desire to concentrate on public services and strengthening a local community as it is attachment to a more abstract union. The SNP has now been in power for 10 years, and the fact it suffered losses in the 2017 general election reflects the perception that it is the party not only for independence, but also the party of government.

For all her talk of remaining in the single market, Sturgeon will be aware that it will be the bread-and-butter consequences of Brexit, like rising prices, and money redirected towards Northern Ireland, that will resonate on the doorstep. She will also be aware that roughly a third of SNP voters opted for Brexit

The general election result suggests discontent over local or devolved issues is currently overriding constitutional matters, whether UK-wide or across the EU. Now Brexit talks with a Tory-DUP government have started, this may change. But if it does not, Sturgeon will be heading for a collision with voter choice in the autumn of 2018. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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