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Times Higher Education Supplement
by Melanie Newman | 25 July 09
The reading lists of lecturers at the University of Nottingham’s School of Politics and International Relations are being scrutinised for material that is illegal or could incite violence.
The institution has set up a “module review committee”, made up of teaching-group heads, to advise on academics’ teaching material.
A document about the process explains that the reviews’ purpose is to provide feedback to staff on a range of issues, including the topics covered, the assessment methods used and “whether any material on reading lists could be illegal or might be deemed to incite people to use violence”.
The review process has already begun, with reading lists used in the current academic year being checked retrospectively.
The committee was set up after an MA student in Nottingham’s politics department, Rizwaan Sabir, and a clerical assistant, Hicham Yezza, were arrested under anti-terrorism laws last year. Staff called the police after they discovered a copy of the Al-Qaeda Training Manual on Mr Yezza’s computer.
Mr Sabir, who was studying Islamic terrorism for his dissertation, had downloaded the manual from the internet and sent it to his friend, Mr Yezza, for printing. Both men were released without charge, although Mr Yezza was subsequently jailed for immigration offences.
The arrests provoked outrage from scholars, who claimed that they amounted to an attack on academic freedom, a claim that was strongly denied by Nottingham.
David Miller, professor of sociology at the University of Strathclyde and the convenor of Teaching About Terrorism, a study group that has members drawn from 30 universities, said Nottingham’s review policy represented a “fundamental attack on academic freedom”.
“The module review committee is a censorship committee: it can’t operate as anything else,” he said. “The university is acting as the police, one step removed.”
Senior academics at Nottingham have stressed that the committee acts only in an advisory capacity and that its operation was agreed by staff.
Steve Fielding, professor of political history at Nottingham, said: “The policy was agreed in principle at a full meeting of staff, and a working group whose membership was open to all interested staff was set up to refine the details.
“We collectively agreed the policy at a further full meeting of staff. The policy is there to protect staff from the accusation of promoting illegal acts: it is not an attempt to undermine academic freedom.”
A Nottingham spokesman said: “In total, the school teaches almost 100 modules, with reading lists comprising thousands of books and other materials. All of them have been reviewed under the process and not one has caused concern.”
Professor Miller said he was not aware of any other university that was reviewing reading lists.
Alia Brahimi, a research associate at the University of Oxford’s department of politics, specialises in al-Qaeda ideology and strategy and teaches a course on Islam in international relations, both of which require her to consult jihadi tracts.
“As far as I am aware, neither the university nor my department has seriously considered auditing or interfering with the recommended reading on my syllabus,” she said.