Academic Freedom and Education Issues at UCU Congress 2024

The University and College Union (UCU) 2024 congress is taking place at the end of May in Bournemouth, write Liz Lawrence and Philip Inglesant. Several important issues are tabled for debate, which have a bearing on how the union is organised and its priorities..


There are 67 motions on the order paper, plus amendments. In addition, the Further and Higher Education sections hold separate conferences in the middle of the event . Unite members of UCU staff who are in dispute with UCU may strike that day and stop those conferences. We support these staff members in their struggles.

This is the third of a series of articles addressing the debates before UCU Congress 2024.

Defence of academic freedom and freedom of speech in universities and colleges is a central issue for UCU. If such freedoms do not exist in universities, then they become no longer part of an international academic community.

Motions at Congress 2024 address this issue in two ways.  First of all, in regard to Palestine.  UCU Congress should support motions which defend academic freedom in the UK and elsewhere to study, research, debate and teach about the history, geography and politics of the Middle East.  There must not be no-go areas for teaching and research in universities and colleges.

UCU has a good record of defending academic freedom on Palestine, largely as a result of the work of BRICUP (British Committee for the Universities of Palestine), and this work must continue, especially at a time when some university authorities and politicians are challenging this freedom.

Motion 33, one of a group of Palestine-related motions, explicitly raises academic freedom; HE34 to the HE sector conference does so in the context of the exceptionally punitive actions of management at Queen Mary University of London in breaking into UCU offices there.

Secondly, there are motions that defend academic freedom in other contexts. Motions 12, 13 and 14 address the relation between freedom of speech, teaching of history, standards of professional conduct and the equality agenda.  Motion 12 calls on UCU to issue professional guidance in this area.  It is also important that UCU defends members when they come under attack for exercise of academic freedom or for teaching and researching in contested subject areas. Motion 14 concerns the freedom to teach history, particularly the history of conflicts, and mentions Palestine alongside Ukraine and other conflicts.

Universities have a duty to support academic freedom.  They also have a duty to support equal opportunities and equal participation of all staff and students in the life of the university, irrespective of any protected characteristic.  The challenge comes when some academics wish to exercise academic freedom to pursue areas of research which can make some groups feel their presence in the university is undermined or delegitimated, or even that their research results encourage discrimination.

There are historic examples of research around race and IQ, some of which concluded that there were inherent race differences in IQ, or studies of ‘maternal deprivation’ ’which implied that mothers of young children should not be permitted to engage in paid work outside the home. These studies, widely circulated and controversial in their day, have now been largely debunked by more rigorous later research.

However, “academic freedom” is increasingly mischaracterised to justify exclusionary views around the relationship between sex and gender, provision of single-sex spaces and the status of transgender and non-binary people.  Those who hold such trans-exclusionary beliefs do not generally wish to extend academic freedom to acceptance of trans rights and lives. As asserted in Motion 13 from the LGBT+ members’ standing committee, Universities have duties both to protect academic freedom and to protect students and staff from discrimination.  The rights to academic freedom and to free speech, of course, do not extend to hate speech or a right to incite violence.

Staff and students cannot exercise academic freedom, however, if there is no educational provision in the first place.  UCU Congress will be taking place at a time when the university sector has been hit by waves of redundancies.  Universities are removing areas of provision especially in the Arts and Humanities.  This cutting of educational provision particularly reduces educational opportunities for students who need to study at a local university.

Motion 10 from the NEC calls for a sustainable funding model for post-16 education.  This issue is becoming ever more urgent.  Motion 10 recognises the need to ‘combat cuts and ideological attacks upon disciplines and subject provision’.  Motion 11 from the University of Kent similarly references the government attacks on ‘low-value’ courses and the need to defend the value of education.

Several motions to the Higher Education Sector Conference address the attacks on educational provision and job losses in the HE sector.  This is a struggle which requires both industrial action, co-ordinated where possible, and a political campaign to defend the value of education, both for students and society.  In the General Election period UCU must campaign for an end to job cuts in post 16 education and a better funding model for universities and colleges, including an end to tuition fees.

The first article in this series is here and the second here.

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Liz Lawrence is a past President of UCU and active in UCU Left.

Philip Inglesant is a member of London Retired Members' UCU branch and formerly of Oxford University UCU

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