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Thousands of UK Academics Protest Censorship of Free Speech

Over 3000 academics, including 28 colleagues from the University of St Andrews, have signed an open letter against the Science Secretary Michelle Donelan’s criticism of social media posts on the Israel-Hamas War by members of the newly formed Equality, Diversity and Inclusion advisory group, part of the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) advisory panel. UKRI is an independent public body that funds and directs academic research in the UK, with this new panel created to aid Research England with implementing its diversity plans.

This move came after Donelan posted a letter on October 28 to the Chief Executive of UKRI, Ottoline Leyser, expressing her “disgust and outrage at Research England’s appointment of individuals” who had shared “extremist views on social media”. She specifically criticised Professor Kate Sang of Heriot Watt University and Dr Kamna Patel of University College London for posting criticism of the UK and Israeli governments’ approach to the conflict, demanding UKRI take “swift action” to investigate and shut down the whole advisory group. According to Donelan’s letter, Patel “amplified” a post that, while condemning violence on both sides of the conflict, made reference to “Israel’s ‘genocide and apartheid’, while Sang allegedly expressed sympathy for Hamas by commenting that “the UK’s crackdown on Hamas support in the UK was ‘disturbing’”. These posts are no longer available due to the academics setting their social media accounts to private. Donelan also criticised the UKRI’s diversity strategy, saying, “UKRI has been going beyond the requirements of equality law in ways which add burden and bureaucracy to funding requirements”.

Professors and lecturers from across the country have expressed concern over what they see as “an attack on individual freedom of expression and academic freedom” as well as “unacceptable political interference in the decision-making and governance of UKRI”.

The CEO of UKRI, Leyser, responded to Donelan’s letter: “We are deeply concerned to have discovered these comments. We are conducting an immediate investigation”. The advisory group has had its operations suspended and an investigation into its structures and ultimate future launched. Several academics have accordingly resigned from their positions on UKRI boards, with the open letter citing disappointment with the “downplaying” of the advisory group’s championing of the principles of equality, inclusion and diversity in accordance with the Equality Act 2010.

The University and College Union has also issued a statement saying, “We are very disappointed at the response of UKRI to the unwarranted pressure that has been placed on it by an increasingly authoritarian government”. The UCU General Secretary Jo Grady further argued that “to artificially conflate expression of these views with support for a proscribed organisation is deeply damaging, and a significant threat to lawful freedom of speech”.

While Donelan’s statement begins by asserting her commitment to protecting academic freedom as “totally sacrosanct”, the academics’ letter voices alarm at the idea of the body capitulating to political pressure and asserting the right of academics to express their opinions, with the appeal “if UKRI does not defend the advisory group from this unilateral state repression, this will send a devastating message to all academics, researchers, and students in the sector”.

In response to this, a university spokesperson told The Saint, “The promotion and protection of academic freedom, and freedom of speech, are central to who we are as a university and what we stand for. This commitment is prominently enshrined in our University Strategy”.

Illustration by Clodagh Earl

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