UCU Left send our solidarity to Sussex UCU, and support their statement of 12th October 2021 in support of trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming members of our university communities. UCU Left also support the national UCU statement published on Twitter on 12th October.
Both of these statements reaffirm UCU’s existing policy of affirming and supporting our trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming siblings to feel safe and included on campus. The statements do not criticise any individuals, other than the Sussex VC, who has failed spectacularly to show any leadership or commitment to supporting some of the most marginalised members of his university. Neither statement call for dismissal of any members of university staff.
Galop reported that 4 in 5 respondents to their study (2020) had experienced a transphobic hate crime. Pink News and Vice World News reported a 332% increase in transphobic hate crime in the UK from 2014-15 to 2020-21. This is a serious social problem. Public discourse around trans rights often falls into abstraction. We must be very clear that real people are at the centre of the so-called debate and they must not be forgotten or talked over. We do not debate the right of trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming people to exist and live happily and safely.
Trans identities are protected under the Equality Act (2010). We must ensure all our institutions (educational or other) uphold their duties in law, and hold them to account when this falls short, as has been the case at Sussex University.
Universities must live up to their commitments to equality and diversity by working actively to ensure that all members of the university community (students and staff) can work and study in safety on campus. There can be no equal opportunities if one section of the university community feels its presence is constantly challenged and undermined.
Academic freedom is integral to academic life in the UK and elsewhere. Academic freedom is important for the documenting of injustice and discrimination and the development of new equality agendas. Academic freedom is an important freedom that it is the duty of educational institutions to defend. We must however acknowledge that neither academic freedom, nor the broader concept of ‘freedom of speech’, are without any limits. We do not accept that people have the freedom to make racist, misogynist or homophobic statements, or publish or teach racist, misogynist or homophobic theories as part of their academic work; equally, we should not allow delegitimising trans people and their rights. Those of us who work in education have a duty to be committed to equality, and to affirm the right of all our students to exist and participate equally in the academic community.
We value academic freedom, and we believe it should be exercised responsibly. It is part of research ethics to consider the impact of research and its dissemination on research subjects, those who may be impacted by the research and the wider society. Those who cite academic freedom to undermine the rights of others are misusing the concept. If they wish to defend an individual for making statements that delegitimate trans lives and undermine safety and wellbeing for trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming students and staff, then they must also accept freedom of speech and expression for those who criticise this view.
Many trans and non-binary students at Sussex clearly feel that the university is not giving them the protection they deserve. When they protest, they are exercising their democratic rights and freedom of speech. They have the right to be heard.
We do not support calls for the summary sacking of any member of staff. But student complaints of discrimination must not be ignored or silenced. Institutions are obliged to investigate credible complaints against staff including academics, test them against legal principles enshrined in the Equality Act, and principles of justice and inclusion, taking due account of academic freedom. Urgent work is needed to ensure universities have suitable and sufficient policies in place to support all members of the university, and to develop literacy and understanding of key equality issues, including for the support and wellbeing of trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming staff and students.
As socialists and trade unionists, UCU Left firmly believe we must stand with our most marginalised and oppressed colleagues, comrades, and members of our communities. We oppose all forms of oppression, discrimination and hate crime.