Nelson McCausland: The Left wants to silence voices of the Right ... and it’s using the fig leaf of ‘academic freedom’ to do so
University departments should not be immune from scrutiny any more than any other sector. By Nelson McCausland
Last Friday the Queen’s University branch of the University and Colleges Union (UCU) issued a Press release about statements that had been made by a number of named and unnamed unionists. I was one of those named, and the Press release made specific reference to several columns that I had written over the past few years in this newspaper.
It didn’t dispute any of the facts and merely noted that I had written about the “Left-wing sympathies” of many local academics.
The overall impression I got from the Press release was that the union was uncomfortable with the fact that some folk had actually dared to raise fundamental questions about the role of universities and academics in society and the dominance of the liberal Left.
Left-wing lecturers can comment on others, but please don’t comment on them.
Thankfully, we live in a society where there is still a large degree of liberty and so, while some people want to shut down public discussion on a range of issues, it isn’t going to happen.
The truth is that in the UK today around 80% of academics are from the Left of politics, with only about 20% from the Right.
When it comes to subjects such as sociology, anthropology and cultural studies, I suspect that the figure is even higher, while in other subjects, such as physics and chemistry, or classical languages, it is probably lower.
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In other words, there is a political imbalance within universities and the balance is not reflective of the balance in wider society.
Some 17.4 million people across the UK voted to leave the EU, but I struggle to think of even one local academic who has publicly promoted that viewpoint.
Yet when Donald Tusk talked about “a special place in hell” for those who promoted Brexit (without a plan), a Queen’s professor tweeted the “expert opinion” that “hell is too good for them”.
Moreover, we live in the era of the academic activist and, indeed, some of these academics will even describe themselves as “academic activists”.
To take but one example, Dr Merav Amir, president of the QUB UCU, was interviewed in the wake of the Press release. She came to Queen’s in 2013 as a geographer, but is also an activist and is a prominent advocate for the boycotting of Israel and for disinvestment from the country.
She also has “a particular interest in feminist and queer theory”.
But does all this matter? Many of us believe that it does matter, and it matters because universities and academics are a powerful influence in shaping society.
Time and time again it is university academics who are called upon to provide “expert opinion” in the media, or to comment on the issues of the day.
They are to the fore in much of the public debate on political and social issues.
They are also called upon to provide input that will help to shape Government policies. They write the books, they educate the students and they teach the next generation of teachers. That is why it matters.
This is an issue around the world, as the UCU Press release acknowledged, but there is an added dimension here in Northern Ireland in that there is a large degree of alignment between the liberal Left and Irish nationalism and republicanism.
There is, therefore, an additional local dimension, with the role of some academic activists in supporting the development of community infrastructure in nationalist communities and in the advancement of Irish Gaelic culture. So, yes, it does matter.
That is why a number of unionist politicians and commentators have been looking at this issue and that is why the union seems to be irked, but whether the union likes it or not, that is going to continue.
Universities should not be immune from scrutiny any more than any other sector. There are questions that need to be asked and perhaps some Freedom of Information requests that are still awaiting answers.