Universities regulator says academics should ‘leave their personal political views at home’

The head of the universities watchdog today declares that academics should "leave their personal political views at home” as he accuses Oxford dons protesting over a Cecil Rhodes statue of prioritising "high-flown rhetoric" over students’ education.

Writing in The Sunday Telegraph, Lord Wharton, who chairs the Office for Students, says that more than 150 academics threatening to boycott teaching at Oriel College were setting a "deeply concerning precedent".

The former Conservative MP says many people would find the move "baffling and inexcusable", stating: "I wonder how many working people would threaten to effectively work to rule to change the building or logo of their employer."

The intervention by Lord Wharton, who previously ran Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign, will inflame a row that has become the latest battle in the culture wars engulfing British public life.

Yesterday, Lord Mendoza, the provost of the 700-year-old Oriel College, said that he had received an "enormous" number of offers from other academics volunteering to fill in for dozens of colleagues who had threatened a boycott over the college’s decision to retain a statue of Rhodes. 

The rebel dons have said that they will refuse to give tutorials to Oriel’s undergraduate students and discontinue any assistance they give the college with its outreach work, including interviewing undergraduates. They have also pledged to withdraw from all talks, seminars and conferences sponsored by Oriel and halt their involvement in recruiting fellows or any other appointments at the college.

Separately a Redfield & Wilton Strategies poll for The Sunday Telegraph found that 44 per cent of people disagree with statues of historical figures being taken down if their views or actions are now considered unacceptable, compared to 30 per cent who said such monuments should be removed

Oriel Colleges statue of Cecil Rhodes at the University of Oxford 

Credit: Laurel Chor/Getty

Writing in this newspaper, (read the full piece below) Lord Wharton states: "This is an abuse of their privileged status and is at the expense of students.  I wonder how many working people would threaten to effectively work to rule to change the building or logo of their employer. Many ordinary people will find it baffling and inexcusable, doubly so in such challenging times.

"A boycott would risk disrupting the education of Oriel’s students after a challenging year, damage the chances of disadvantaged students getting to Oxford, and set a deeply concerning precedent."

He adds that the proposed boycott "risks giving the impression that, for some, the political point they want to make matters more than the impact on the institutions within which they work and the students who rely on them to do their job and do it well."

"Ironically those who protest that the presence of a statue can make some students feel uncomfortable are threatening to refuse to do the very work that widens access and participation."

Academics are abusing their position of privilege and they should rethink boycott, writes James Wharton

The debate over Oriel College’s statue of Cecil Rhodes took a worrying turn this week. A group of Oxford academics pledged to boycott the college until it agreed to remove the monument. This is an abuse of their privileged status and is at the expense of students.  I wonder how many working people would threaten to effectively work to rule to change the building or logo of their employer. Many ordinary people will find it baffling and inexcusable, doubly so in such challenging times.

A boycott would risk disrupting the education of Oriel’s students after a challenging year, damage the chances of disadvantaged students getting to Oxford, and set a deeply concerning precedent.

I don’t believe that tearing statues down is the answer. It seems an attempt to deny and erase parts of our history which some consider unfashionable. Even so, I will defend the rights of students and academics to express different views – even if they completely disagree with me. Free speech and academic freedom are cornerstones of university culture, and students and staff should always be able to debate and engage with controversial or uncomfortable ideas. So long as they do so within the law.

The danger is that, beneath all the high-flown rhetoric and ideological arguments, real students get forgotten. Sadly, this is now exactly what could happen.

As Chair of the Office for Students (OfS) part of my job to is stand up for students where they are at risk of losing out on teaching and tuition. Our great universities must not get lost in these sorts of debates if the consequence is to lose sight of why they exist in the first place.

Students have a right to expect an enriching academic experience that lives up to what they were promised when they applied and that leads to a good career after they graduate. Our academic staff, who contribute so much to national life, similarly have a duty to do their best for those students and to leave their personal political views at home.

This is more important now than ever. Over the last eighteen months students have had to put up with persistent disruption to their studies because of the pandemic. In my short time at the OfS, I’ve been impressed by their dedication and hard work. Recovery from this pandemic will be long and difficult, today’s students have the skills, talent and work-ethic to help us all overcome the challenges ahead.

That is why this proposed boycott is so disappointing. It risks giving the impression that, for some, the political point they want to make matters more than the impact on the institutions within which they work and the students who rely on them to do their job and do it well.

Protests which disadvantage students will do nothing to change minds or improve the quality of discourse.

Lord James Wharton, chair of office for Students

Credit: Jeff Gilbert 

I was particularly shocked by the academics’ threat to withdraw from outreach and access work. Universities like Oxford have been doing more to reach out to talented young people who might otherwise have thought a top university wasn’t for them. Refusing to participate in practical work which can make such a positive difference cannot possibly be justified. Ironically those who protest that the presence of a statue can be make some students feel uncomfortable are threatening to refuse to do the very work that widens access and participation.

The nature of academia is that there will be strong and opposing views on all sorts of issues – issues that students care deeply about too. The way through this is engaging openly and in good faith, not denying students teaching and support.

As England’s higher education regulator, the Office for Students is focused on raising quality and maintaining standards as we emerge from the pandemic. We have been clear that universities and colleges should provide high quality teaching in spite of the challenging circumstances. We may be over the worst of the pandemic, but we are still ready to intervene where students are being let down.

Many lecturers and tutors did excellent work during the pandemic, showing great innovation and resilience to keep classes going for their students, often online. If I were in their position I would want to consider how to best build on this work – supporting and helping students to boost their learning. The last thing I would be thinking about is refusing to teach and support students in order to signal support for a political cause.

To those who have added their name to this boycott: I know you feel strongly, but please think again.

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