by Ian McNay
My main concern in this post is about academic freedom, free speech and surveillance. I write as one who worked on Open University courses in the 1980s (under a previous Conservative administration) which were investigated for alleged Marxist bias.
Bahram Bekhradnia, in a recent HEPI blog, has identified the small number of complaints about free speech on campus which have provoked a government response, and the ideological base of those making them. The same was true in my experience – single figure numbers of complaints about courses with 5,000 students a year in some cases and many more thousands of ‘drop-in’ viewers and listeners for OU/BBC programmes. The allegations were found to be unjustified, but led to significantly increased levels of internal monitoring and accountability. The BBC staff were very scared of possible government sanctions.
For one radio programme, Rosemary Deem, an SRHE notable, was barred from contributing because she was, as I then was, a member of the Labour party. Two was too many. I was forced to accept a distasteful right-winger, who insisted that his contribution – denying Tory cuts to education budgets – could not be criticised, questioned, commented upon, nor edited. The new rules said that all elements of a course had to be internally balanced – not one programme putting one point of view and a second with another. Ditto for course units. The monitoring group said the programme was biased, lacked balance, and should not be broadcast. I said that students were intelligent enough to recognise his ‘pedigree’ and it went out.
In 1988, another programme, on the Great Education Reform Bill, was broadcast at 2am. We arrived later that morning to a phone message from DES demanding a right of reply. The programme had featured John Tomlinson’s comments/critique. He was the Chief Education Officer of Cheshire, hardly a hotbed of revolution. We pointed out that DES staff had been sitting in our ‘classroom’ and that comments could be made to their tutor, discussed with fellow students in self-help groups, and used, if evidenced, in assessments.
My concern is that, as someone who writes on policy and its impact, my work can be seen as ‘disruptive’ [a basic element of much research and education] and ‘causing discomfort and inconvenience’ to some people – mainly policy makers. Those terms are from the current draft bill on police, crime, sentencing and courts, which aims to limit public demonstrations of dissent. Given trends in other countries, and government resistance to a more balanced view of history, I wonder how long it will be before there is more overt intrusion – by OfS? – into controlling the curriculum and suppressing challenging, but legitimate views. In the OU, Marxist critique disappeared for years, as self-censorship operated to avoid recurrent problems of justification. It could happen again.
That goes alongside recent developments with Microsoft surveillance which are intrusive and irritating. The university has just had an ‘upgrade’. In my experience, such upgrades, like restructuring, rarely improve things, and often do the opposite. I now get daily emails from Cortana, a Microsoft offshoot, saying things like ‘Two days ago you were asked a question by X. Have you replied?’ The answer is that ‘if you are reading my emails, you will know the answer to that question’. Undeterred, this AI avatar offers me advice on how to organise my coming week, blithely ignorant that I have only a 0.2 contract. When it says I have 85% of my time ‘spare’, that implies that of my 20% load, only 5% that week was not observable. Its daily plan for me is to spend 2 hours in the morning, ‘focus time…to get your work done’.
The rest is spent not getting my work done, but on email and chats, taking a break and lunchtime and two hours to learn a new skill and develop my career. Wow! Do those in charge of the balanced academic workload know about this prescription? It also believes that all emails are ‘developing your network … you added 23 new members to your networks last week’. A computer network must be much less demanding than my criteria require for the term. Its autonomous, unaccountable and unexplained treatment of my emails includes frequently deleting when I click to open one, and designating as ‘junk’ PDF journal articles relevant to my work sent by Academia. I then have to spend time digging around to find both of these. It also merges emails into a stream so that finding one of them needs a memory of the last one in the stream – often an automatic reply. More time spent digging around.
Then there are the constant disruptive phone calls to verify my sign in. The automated voice advises me that ‘if you have not initiated this verification, you should press such-and-such a key’. I did that, twice, once when two such calls came within 50 seconds of one another, which I thought suspicious. How simple minded I was! The ‘solution’ was to bar me from access until the systems administrators had sorted things. That meant a full day or more in each case. The two most recent calls even came when I had not moved to laptop based work, and I now no longer log out, so I do not sign in, but leave the machine on all day every day which may not be good ecologically, but it helps my mental health and state of mind.
I accept the need for computer security, with university generated messages warning about emails from sources outside the university, such as OfS, AdvanceHE, or HEPI and Research Professional through a university subscription, asking if I trust them. Up to a point, Lord Copper. But balance is the key. I knew there was surveillance – in a previous institution a NATFHE e-mail was held up to allow management to get its reply in simultaneously with its being sent. This, though, is blatant and overt. I suppose that is better than it being hidden, but it is neither efficient nor effective. Am I the only one experiencing this, a human being balancing Marvin, the paranoid android, or do others have similar experiences? If the latter, what are we going to do about it? It has implications for research in terms of the confidentiality of email interviews, for example.
And, finally, on a lighter note … my local optician has a poster in the window advertising ‘Myopia Management’. That sounds like a module to include in the leadership programmes that some of us run.
SRHE Fellow Ian McNay is emeritus professor at the University of Greenwich.