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Academics criticise HEA for flouting principles of intellectual freedom

The Higher Education Academy has suspended its director of research and evaluation after the publication of a letter in Times Higher Education.


Lee Harvey's letter, which he wrote in a personal capacity, criticised the National Student Survey. Academics have condemned the suspension as a restriction of academic freedom. Times Higher Education understands that Professor Harvey is accused of breaching his contract by writing a letter for publication without HEA clearance. The decision to suspend him was taken by HEA chief executive Paul Ramsden, against whom Professor Harvey had previously lodged a grievance on an unrelated matter.

Earlier in his career Professor Ramsden was involved with the pioneering student experience survey in Australia, a forerunner to the UK NSS. Professor Harvey described the NSS in his letter as a "hopelessly inadequate improvement tool".

Today, in another letter to Times Higher Education, four academics condemn the HEA's handling of the case, which they say is a "breach of academic freedom".

Lyn Fawcett, chair of the University and College Union higher education committee in Northern Ireland, said he would consider quitting as a member of the HEA if Professor Harvey were not reinstated.

He said: "One has to question the integrity of the HEA if they are not prepared to allow someone who is a specialist in an area to have an expert opinion. It also raises questions about not just academic freedom but personal freedom. That an individual should not be allowed to express an opinion in a personal capacity outside of work is a disgrace."

Another fellow of the HEA, speaking anonymously, said: "You don't shut down a debate that has never been had. There's an atmosphere of intellectual terror surrounding this that is indicative of how afraid people are to speak out about anything."

Bernard Longden, professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University, said: "We talk about the need for higher education to be a 'critical community'. Is this the most effective way that it can handle criticism?" Sean Mackney, HEA deputy chief executive, refused to comment on the suspension or the prior grievance between Professor Harvey and Professor Ramsden. He said: "The academy is a strong believer in the freedom of academics to publish and say what they wish about any matter. It would not be proper for me to comment on (this case) further."

However, a member of HEA staff, speaking anonymously, said there was a "great deal of unease" in the organisation, adding: "If, as we understand, the suspension is retaliation to the letter, then it is absolutely ridiculous and actually very damaging to the academy."

john.gill@tsleducation.com

Readers' comments (62)

  • It is astonishing that Lee Harvey should be suspended as a result of voicing important concerns about the NSS. The letter concerned reflected ideas he has raised before, memorably in the THES (December 2003). This is a worrying assault on academic freedom. It is a shame that the HEA, which theoretically provides a valuable resource for the sector and venue for discussion, appears to be becoming a tool for government and the agencies in pushing through the latest fads. The NSS is problematic for several reasons - notably it fails to take account of issues within individual institutions and it fails to reflect improvements that have occurred over time.

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  • I realise the academic freedom has been slowly curtailed in England, but it reached such an extent that people are sacked from their jobs! This is ridiculous. Prof. Harvey is one of the highly regarded experts in the field of higher education research in the UK and I cannot believe that he cannot express his professional views in the press without being sacked from his job. This is a disgrace indeed and tarnishes the image of UK academic system. Really sorry to see this happen.

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  • It seems ironic to me that the intended purpose of the National Student Survey is to give students the opportunity to express their views and criticisms about their institution, yet Lee Harvey is not extended the same courtesy by the very people responsible for introducing this approach. What makes this scenario even more ridiculous is the fact that Lee Harvey expressed his views on a personal level, outside his role at the HEA! How can anything improve if academics are restricted and scorned for being critical?

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  • I find it shocking that a body claiming to be an 'authoritative and independent voice on policies that affect the student learning experience 'who claim to 'foster robust debate, challenge received wisdom and create a forum for new thinking' is stifling this important debate in such a way. Professor Harvey is one of the world's leading experts on student experience surveys and therefore it is paramount that he is able to contribute further to the improvement and development of more effective research tools. His critical analysis of existing tools is for the purpose of improving the student experience, something for which everyone in HE should be aiming.

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  • Having worked with Professor Harvey I greatly respect his views on Student Satisfaction. However, seeing the changes that the NSS has prompted in many universities I believe that it has been a force for good. Yet as much as I disagree with Professor Harvey's view, there are improvements that can be made to the NSS, such as course specific results to better inform institutions. Furthermore, for institutional level surveys I believe a mixture of the short length and simplicity of the NSS, combined with the customised questions and the feedback cycle of the student satisfaction methodology is most effective. Whilst there are clearly difficulties in the working relationships at the HEA the silencing of free debate is of no benefit. Methodologies should not be ideologies, they should be constantly evolving and responsive tools that best serve the experience of students and the work of universities. I hope the HEA allow such debate and look to moving forwards rather than standing still.

    Yours faithfullly,

    Jason Leman
    Research Associate
    Centre for Research and Evaluation
    Sheffield Hallam University

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  • I am shocked that the debate about the student survey is being closed down in this manner. Professor Harvey knows more about student experience than the majority and his views are invaluable. Whether one agrees with his views or not, the most important issue is to keep progessing knowledge and this cannot be achieved by silencing those that we don't agree with.

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  • Speaking as a Senior Fellow of the Academy, I am shocked and appalled by this action taken by the Academy's Chief Executive. It is totally unacceptable that any academic employed by the Academy should have been deemed to have given up their rights to speak in a personal scapacity on any issue, let alone one that so clearly falls within their area of professional expertise, as in this case. This relects very badly on the HEA, and its image as an organisation, and I would suggest that both the Academy and Paul Ramsden need all the friends they can get!

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  • Professor Harvey is regarded as one of the most acute researchers and commentators of QA in the English-speaking world and his work is highly valued in South Africa. It is shocking to us in the South that the HEA has sought to silence him and prevent robust debate (a precondition for knowledge production) that we always assumed was guaranteed in a country like the UK.

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  • If it weren't for the personal dilemma that Professor Harvey must now currently go through, this would be somewhat humorous, per the prior emails. Perhaps the suspension should be aimed at the executive chief of the HEA, who quite apparently has some control issues (and people can get 'help' with those things). The only bad judgment here comes from the HEA.

    With one quick statement, this can all be fixed, but only if Mr. Ramsden is willing to acknowledge his mistake(s).

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  • The suspension of Professor Harvey in apparent retaliation for his expression of a view critical of the NSS is a very worrying development. I am a higher education researcher, familiar with the work of both Professor Harvey and Professor Ramsden. Both are highly esteemed scholars. I am disappointed to see the HEA's response to Professor Harvey's letter and greatly concerned at the implications for academic and intellectual freedom in the UK.

    If it is true that Professor Harvey's suspension is due to a breach of his contract with the HEA, this raises a broader question as to why the HEA feels the need to require staff to obtain "clearance" to publish, even as private citizens. I understand that the HEA is seen as a valuable resource for the HE sector in the UK - its value and legitimacy surely derive to a great extent from the academic standing, reputation and integrity of its staff. If this restrictive contract is becoming the norm in such agencies it directly threatens the very values on which their authenticity depends. I am sure this is happening here in Australia, too, but we have not (yet) had such a high profile case to draw our attention to the issue.

    The reputation and effectiveness of the HEA is at risk as long as action such as suspension can be taken in response to legitimate public comment by an academic staff member. In effect, this action treats the expression of an opinion as gross misconduct; clearly this is an untenable stance for the HEA to take. Professor Harvey must be reinstated without delay.

    Catherine Rytmeister
    Sydney, Australia

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