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Ruskin College: Report On Academic Freedom

Volume 489: debated on Monday 9 November 1987

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asked Her Majesty's Government:When they intend to publish the report by Sir Alfred Sloman on Academic Freedom at Ruskin College, Oxford.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Education and Science
(Baroness Hooper)

The Government have today published the report of an inspection of Ruskin College, Oxford.The Government caused an independent inspection to be made because of concern about academic freedom at the college. Ministers were not convinced, on the basis of their discussions with the college and of papers made available by the college, that the principle of academic freedom would in practice predominate sufficiently over other considerations. Accordingly, my predecessor invited the inspectors, Sir Albert Sloman, Professor P. M. Bromley and the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, to undertake the inspection with the following terms of reference:

"1. To inspect the College under the terms of Regulation 24(2) of the Education (Grant) Regulations 1983 to ascertain what principles at present apply with regard to academic freedom and what means are adopted for ensuring that those principles are put into practice;
2. To make recommendations to the Secretary of State as to the principles that should in future apply and the means that should be adopted for ensuring that they are put into practice."

Ministers are most grateful to Sir Albert Sloman and his colleagues for carrying out the inspection with such care and for producing so thoughtful and thought-provoking a report.

The report sets out the inspectors' statement of the principles of academic freedom which have governed their inspection; it considers the present arrangements in Ruskin College which are relevant to this issue; and makes a number of proposals for action which the college should take in order to secure that its commitment to academic freedom is given practical force and application through its pronouncements, its rules and its procedures.

I draw attention in particular to four aspects. The inspectors recommend a number of changes in the college's procedures which will help to secure that its commitment to academic freedom will be observed in practice. Second, they set out clearly an account of the actions to be considered by the principal in the event of an infringement or the threat of an infringement of academic freedom. Third, they recommend that, if a dispute involving academic freedom between the college and one of its members cannot be resolved by the college's internal procedures, the Chancellor of Oxford University may be invited to nominate an independent person to adjudicate. Fourth, they recommend that the college should review its structure of government.

I have discussed these recommendations with college representatives and am glad to report that the college accepts in full the report's recommendations and is taking action to implement them. In particular, Ministers welcome the college's unequivocal assertion that it is committed to the principle and the practice of academic freedom. I shall keep myself informed of developments there.

The statement of general principles for academic freedom in part 1 of the report, which the inspectors took as their starting point, will be of general interest and contribute to the continuing debate on this subject. The Government takes the view that academic staff should have the freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institutions. The report's statement of principles raises a number of important issues, and the Government expects that the bodies representing the academic communities, including the committee of vice-chancellors and principals and the committee of directors of polytechnics, will wish to give further consideration to it. The Government recognises the relevance of academic freedom to the legislation which it will be bringing forward shortly to modify the tenure of academic staff: the relevant provisions will be framed so as to take the issue into account.

Copies of the report have been placed in the Library.