Russell Group university accused of Soviet-style censorship

·3-min read
Exeter University - Alamy
Exeter University - Alamy

A Russell Group university has been accused of Soviet-style censorship after requiring new humanities courses to “move away” from a “white, Eurocentric” curriculum.

Academics at Exeter University’s department of Social Sciences and International Studies (SSIS) have been told that they should “integrate” these changes when updating existing modules or creating new ones.

One lecturer said he is “shocked” at the stipulation and claimed the faculty - which oversees a number of disciplines including law, politics, sociology, philosophy, and anthropology - is undermining academic freedom “in the most profound sense”.

"It is like there is a Maoist cultural revolution taking place in our centres of learning,” one academic told The Telegraph.

"It is just ridiculous - we are supposed to be a leading Russell Group university. This affects thousands of students and hundreds of academics.”

The academic said the movement to “decolonise” the curriculum has swiftly progressed from a “faddish fringe theory” to being “adopted as the new orthodoxy” in universities.

He likened the approach to the Soviet Union where academics might be asked to prove how their courses would advance radical socialism in the face of reactionary capitalist imperialism from the West.

“What’s the difference here in the UK, where we are supposed to be a free liberal democracy?” he said.

Earlier this week a new bill on academic freedom was featured in the Queen’s Speech which Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, said will end "the chilling effect of censorship on campus once and for all".

Universities in England could face fines if they fail to protect free speech on campus, under tougher legislation.

Academics, students or visiting speakers will be able to seek compensation through the courts if they suffer loss from a breach of free speech rules.

Lecturers at Exeter University fear that if they fail to demonstrate that they are “decolonising” their curriculum, their courses will not get accredited.

A document titled “SSIL Accreditation Coversheet”, seen by The Telegraph, states that all new modules or changes to existing modules must be sent to the SSIS Quality and Standards Team.

Academics are asked to “reflect on how you have considered and integrated” various concepts into their module design, such as providing a welcome learning environment, supporting equality and diversity and promoting participation of students.

As part of the accreditation process for courses due to begin this September, lecturers must also think about how they are “broadening epistemological and ontological horizons by moving away from a white, Eurocentric curriculum”.

The academic said this goes against the university’s own policy on academic freedom and also creates a “chilling effect”.

He said: "There are lots of people here who feel the same way as I do but no one will come forward because there is a deep culture of fear.”

An Exeter University spokesman said: “Guidance from the Quality Assurance Agency asks us to consider the needs of all students - including those studying at different locations, from different cultural/educational backgrounds, with additional learning needs, or with protected characteristics – when we design modules.

“We are an international organisation with staff and students from around the world, and from a wide range of backgrounds, and it is right this is recognised in our teaching, curriculum content and assessment.”

An Office for Students spokesman said: “Freedom of speech and academic freedom are crucial components of a successful higher education system. Students should be able to study from a range of texts, including from those scholars who depart from orthodoxy.

“All universities will want to assure themselves they are mindful of their obligations to promote academic freedom and freedom of speech in all areas of their work, as well as their duties under equality legislation.”

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