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Vice-Chancellor: Reading’s strength stems from academic freedom

Robert Van de Noort

In politics, it is said, timing is everything. Which is why it is curious that the Education Secretary chose this week to launch a new policy over freedom of speech in universities. 

Any support for academic freedom is welcome. But I would much rather see the UK Government spending its energy looking for new ways to support students and academics through the difficulties of this pandemic.  

That’s what we are doing. We recognise fully that many students are missing the university experience they were expecting, and I am immensely grateful to colleagues who are going out of their way to continue our work through difficult circumstances, whether in teaching, research or other support. We keenly await the government’s ‘roadmap out of lockdown’ proposals, and as we have from the beginning, we will look to bring as much in-person teaching and other activity back to campus as can be safely accommodated when we are able. 

Earlier this month, I was one of seven Vice-Chancellors to write to the Government, putting forward a number of ideas on how they might be able to further support students whose university experience has been impacted. The Universities Minister responded, addressing our idea for a short-term reduction in interest on student loans, but we await a response on our ideas around redirecting funding to help boost skills. I look forward to hearing more about this. 

In the meantime, I received a letter on Tuesday evening from the Government outlining its plans to strengthen academic freedom, through legislation and more powers for our regulator, the Office for StudentsFreedom of speech is vital in society, and is the most valuable tool we use in our work in universities. I support efforts to help academics to do their work, including exploring difficult or unfashionable topics and ideas, unhindered by unnecessary bureaucracy or resistance. But I do wonder how more regulation and legislation will help, and if it is necessary.  

At the University of Reading we take academic freedom very seriously. We took steps some years ago to promote concepts of academic freedom to the level of our University Charter, receiving approval from Her Majesty The Queen for the changes in 2015.  

I wholeheartedly reject the charge that we are fostering poverty of thought, or sowing a monoculture of ideas. I have always sought to defend those whose ideas have come under attack, and at Reading we are not afraid to hold events or debates, even those on difficult topics or with speakers whose views some people disagree with. We held high profile debates during the Brexit referendum. We support academics’ work highlighting conflicting areas of human rights. And we have sought to open up frank discussions on race and equality.  

Of course, a community is only as strong as its members, and my first priority is to support and protect you, my colleagues, and our students, to thrive in your work and study. As our strategy makes clear, that includes financial sustainabilityAgain I must thank you, and our union and staff representatives, for helping us to face the financial challenges of the pandemic on a sound financial footing and avoiding job losses, despite significant losses of income. As the BBC has reported today, and I am happy to say again, Reading is in a good financial position to weather the storm of coronavirus because of your hard work, selflessness and responsibility.  

I am reminded daily why Reading is a great university, and am never more proud than when I see my colleagues standing up and speaking out, while others stay quiet.  

In the true spirit of freedom of speech, I’d like to encourage debate on this topic and hear from you. If you can think of ways we can improve academic freedoms, or have examples of where we could have done better, I’d like to hear about them – please email me at vc@reading.ac.uk 

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