Academicfreedom - A Critique

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To our fellow postgraduates,

As the postgraduate community in the United Kingdom knows, the National Postgraduate Committee (NPC) treats the current events in the Middle East with the up-most seriousness. We want all potential and current postgraduate students from the region, regardless of race, colour, creed or religion to be able to pursue the education of their choice and work hard to make sure this is the case. We do not agree with boycotts or bans, but prefer constructive engagement to mitigate the effects of the current situation on students from either the Palestinian or Israeli side of the divide and have worked hard with a number of bodies in the United Kingdom to make sure this is the case. Indeed, recent statements by both the University College Union and the National Union of Students have highlighted the effectiveness of our views and actions concerning this topic over the past two years.

Nevertheless, on occasion our affiliates will raise a question, voice a concern and ask whether we are doing things in the correct fashion, and early in September the students´ union at the London School of Economics and Political science wrote a letter to the NPC concerning a discussion of our work at the 2007 National Postgraduate Committee Conference at Keele University.

Well, rather than a bland statement on the website, or a quick email, we´ve decided to publish the letter from LSE and our response on this site, to highlight how this issue is at the forefront of many debates in students´ unions across the United Kingdom and beyond. We value our relationship with LSE, but we also value our beliefs and our work, as a result we believe that an open exchange of letters in public is the best way to proceed.

Enjoy!

Duncan

London, 10th October 2007.

The Letter from LSE:

"19th September 2007

Dear Simon Felton

We are writing to you to express our concern regarding the biased and insensitive manner in which the proposed institutional boycott of Israeli universities was dealt with by the NPC. Whereas we value the work NPC has done in promoting the interests of postgraduate students we cannot tolerate undemocratic actions that show little respect to a significant part of the postgraduate community. In light of these developments, we would like to inform you that the LSE Students Union is seriously considering its position with regards to the NPC if the issue is not addressed appropriately.

We were particularly disturbed by your hastiness in condemning the call for a boycott without providing for a discussion period and by the presence of Dr. Pike at your last conference to speak against the boycott in detriment of a balanced approach to the issue. We feel the lack of adequate background information to the situation and the way the talk was organised gave the impression of a consensus on the issue within the NPC and we know that this is not the case. Policy on the AUT 2005 boycott does not apply to the renewed call for boycott by a different body. Furthermore, your latest statement on the NPC website (14th August) did nothing to address the issue of the violation of the right to education of Palestinian students relegating it to a problem of lack of "books and equipment." The LSE SU supports the Right to Education Campaign based in Occupied Palestine (http://right2edu.birzeit.edu/).

We agree with you that academic freedom and freedom of speech are critical for any university or educational institution. These are the values that motivated UCU Resolution 30, which notes the massive Israeli assault on Palestinian academic institutions and the fundamental rights and freedoms of Palestinians, including freedom of expression, association andmovement and the right to education. Your statement belittles the systematic denial to the right of education of millions of Palestinians. Disruptions to academic freedom which include 850 schools in the Occupied Territories being temporarily closed, 197 schools damaged, 11 schools completely destroyed, 9 vandalized, 25 schools used as detention centres and army barracks. Given that the NPC claims to be committed to academic freedom, one would question your muted position on the massive assault on academic freedom and the sorts of action, if any, the universities have taken to help promote the academic freedom for both Palestine and Israel. The organisation of such a talk could arguably be seen as an indication of your selective support of such freedom.

We wouldtherefore request you to issue a statement on the website in supportof further debate on this issue providing, in a balanced manner, the arguments for an against the boycott. In addition, we would request that you submit a public apology for the poor organisation and the disproportionate amount of time allocated to this issue given the fact that more pressing and relevant concerns for post graduate students could have been addressed in the conference. On this last point, we would want clarification as to how such a contentious issue was permitted to be put on the agenda for a national postgraduate conference in which many union officers attended to learn about post graduate issues i.e welfare concerns and how unions can engage more with post graduate students.

We hope to hear from you shortly

Yours sincerely,

LSE Student Union Executive Members

Fadhil Bakeer Marker;

General Secretary

Ruhana Ali;

Education & Welfare Officer

Libby Meyer;

Treasurer


Kate Berry;

Communications Officer

James Caspell;

Postgraduate Officer

Ziyaad Lunat;

Mature & Part Time Students Officer

Lizzie Fisson;

Students with Disabilities Officer

Aled Dilwyn Fisher;

Environment & Ethics Officer

Amena Adewusi;

Anti-Racism Officer

Daisy Mitchell-Forster;

Women´s Officer

Firoz Noordeen;

International Officer

Louise Robinson;

Residences Officer"

And this is our response:

`4th October 2007

Dear LSE Officer,

Thank you for you letter dated 19th September 2007, we at the National Postgraduate Committee believe that it is very important that our affiliates engage with us on every level and are grateful that you have decided to contact us over this issue.

We regret that comments made by Dr. Pike were controversial and whilst the NPC promotes and defends free speech on every level as part of its core values, we certainly can understand why your representative at the our conference found his presentation at conflict with the views of others in the room. Indeed, the session should have gone a lot further in the interests of balance and normally this would have been the case, but this year, after a last minute cancellation, additional speakers were not available. However, we hope that in the forthcoming 2008 conference at the Open University in Milton Keynes to have a full session on how the conflict in the entire Middle East, not just in Israel or Palestine, affects the prospects of current or potential postgraduates in the United Kingdom. Certainly, we would hope that you guys at the LSE would assist us and that we at the NPC could benefit from your knowledge and experience.

In the short term, we encourage members of the LSE Students´ Union to attend our regular Ordinary General Meetings and propose policies to address some of the issues raised. We are a highly democratic institution, run by postgraduates for postgraduates and I, as General Secretary, am the only full time member of staff. As a result, any proposals put forward by affiliates are taken very seriously and we work hard to address any issues raised. Therefore, we would be honoured to have your input at our forthcoming OGM on International Students in the United Kingdom at the University of Nottingham on the 24th November 2007 and to provide us all with some interesting views and ideas.

The NPC strives very hard as a fundamental principle to function as a secular body that will treat everyone the same regardless of race, religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, social background or political views and we uphold principals of freedom of expression and academic conduct, within socially accepted ethical boundaries. Because we are a charity, we are restricted by law in our remit to deal solely with our core designated activity, which is the promotion of postgraduate issues in the UK and beyond. In 1992, we set up a Constitutional Sub-Committee, effectively a supreme court, to make sure that we do not move too far from this aim. Therefore, whilst we do not and indeed cannot take a position on the wider issues of the day (regardless of personally beliefs), we do take very strong positions on how many issues affect postgraduate students.

Which is why we are concerned about the Middle East and the Israeli - Palestinian conflict, we feel very strongly that all people have a right to a postgraduate education and we are concerned how events in the region are affecting Palestinian postgraduates from all religious backgrounds. Certainly, there are a substantial number of Palestinian students at LSE, in addition to the a large number of students from the Middle East and we are concerned about the effects the current situation has on their postgraduate education and research. We believe in engagement and non-violence, something which I personally hold close to my heart after being injured on active duty in 2003 whilst serving in the RAF. Consequently, we will be working this year with all institutions involved in these events to make sure that postgraduate students in these countries have access to the resources and facilities they deserve. Indeed, this year we even have a project officer, Andre Oboler `on the ground´ in the region to engage with parties on both sides of the divide in Israel and Palestine.

To conclude, the National Postgraduate Committee works very hard to ensure that postgraduates, locally, in the UK and beyond gain access to the education they deserve and are not hindered in anyway possible. We fully appreciate your letter informing us of your concerns, and in response we must emphasise that the current conflict is something the NPC takes very seriously indeed. However, we approach the subject in a non-partisan fashion, because we have a strict remit that focuses solely on the needs of postgraduates and if we veered too far from this, we would loose our charity status and all postgraduates will be poorer from such an occurrence. Nevertheless, we are very grateful for the contribution made by the London School of Economics to the debate and we invite you to engage with use through our democratic structures and help the National Postgraduate Committee fulfil its aims in a better and more productive way.

Kind regards,

Duncan.´