Senior management at the University of Bristol have become embroiled in a row with lecturers over the SU-backed National Student Survey (NSS) boycott.
In an email – leaked exclusively to Epigram – academics were warned that they would face disciplinary action if they undermined the University’s position of promoting the NSS.
The email was originally sent to the Heads of Schools on the 31st January and has since been circulated to all staff. It was signed o by the Pro-Vice Chancellor Judith Squires and HR Director Guy Gregory.
One academic described the move as ‘authoritarian’.
Bristol SU and the NUS are campaigning for students to boycott the NSS in order to oppose Higher Education reforms that could see tuition fees rise in line with inflation over the next parliament.
The University argues that the government’s plans would see tuition fees stabilise ‘in real terms’, and are encouraging students to take the survey.
The University and College Union (UCU), which represents a large number of academic staff, recently came out in favour of the NSS boycott. The email to staff appears to be in response to this.
Censorship? The row was discussed on this week’s Epicast…
‘Members of staff have an obligation to work within and carry out the policies of the University and therefore we do not consider the actions proposed by UCU in relation to supporting the NUS boycott to be consistent with the contractual obligations of staff’, the email read.
The controversial ‘edict’ went on to reiterate that the University will ‘expect UCU members to engage with NSS promotion as requested and not to brief students against participation or take any other action to undermine the University’s position’.
One lecturer – speaking on the condition of anonymity – explained the academics’ opposition to government plans, suggesting that: ‘if something as pernicious as the NSS-driven Teaching Education Framework (TEF) comes along, the silence of academics, complicity with the erosion of a decent, public higher education for all, is as big a burden as simply going along with edicts from Senate House’.
The source described Professor Squires’ message as ‘deeply concerning’ and said that it was clear that the University is ‘literally’ trying to ‘censor academics’.
‘A lot of colleagues that I’ve been in contact with find it a step too far’, the lecturer went on to claim, before reminding Prof Squires that she can still ‘adopt a less authoritarian position’.
The lecturer described the situation as ‘fluid’, confessing that ‘the “gagging” of lecturers is by no means a done deal’.
Allegations of ‘gagging’ are especially damaging for the University following some of their recent statements. In response to a student’s open letter on a lecturer’s ‘anti-Semitic’ comments last month, the University asserted that ‘freedom of expression and academic freedom are at the heart’ of their mission.
‘Our approach is to enable and promote free speech,’ a University spokesperson said, before concluding that ‘occasionally academics will put forward a view that is contrary to the views of others’.
— Zoë Backhouse (@zoezackhouse) December 12, 2016
SU Undergraduate Education Officer Zoe Backhouse argued that the statement was incompatible with the email.
Backhouse said the SU is ‘particularly concerned to see this [email to staff] directly contradict the University’s commitment to academic freedom and the promotion of free speech. If these values are to be upheld, then academics must be allowed to voice their views even when those views are inconvenient for the University’.
Backhouse continued: ‘Transparency should be key to the relationship between the University and its students and it’s sad to see that the University doesn’t share this view’.
Prof Squires hit back when questioned on the email, asserting that the ‘established expectation’ at the University of Bristol is ‘that staff will encourage students to engage with the NSS’.
‘It’s an important tool for the University to hear how students feel about their time here. The NSS informs our understanding of what we need to do to enhance the student experience’, Prof Squires said.
Responding to the suggestion that gagging lecturers was censorious and ran contrary to the University’s previous support of free speech, Squires commented: ‘While academic freedom is a fundamental value of the University, this has to be balanced against the need for members of staff to fulfil their contractual duties, as recognised in the UCU motion itself’.
The University have also pointed out that UCU only support the boycott in a limited way and do not object with members being told they can’t undermine NSS promotion whilst in contact time with students.
The NSS is a survey offered to all final year students. The data from the NSS can only be used in TEF if over 50 per cent of students respond to it.
Will you be boycotting the NSS? Let us know…