For the last two years the Faculty of Politics and International Relations has not recorded lectures titled “Is China a Democracy?” and “On China”. All other faculty lectures are recorded, so these lectures would be exceptional to normal practice.
Emails obtained by Cherwell show that lectures, delivered by Professor Thornton of Merton College in week four of Michaelmas 2020 and week three of Michaelmas 2021 included warnings that the content was “politically sensitive” and not recorded. They further reveal that Professor Todd Hall’s lecture “on China” was only delivered live.
The emails, sent by Ms Durga Sapre, Politics Undergraduate Studies Coordinator, also reveal first year students were required to sign a legal undertaking in order to attend the live online lecture given by Professor Thornton. Freshers, who wished to remain anonymous, told Cherwell the undertaking represented an agreement not to disclose the contents or participants of the lecture. The University has stated that this is incorrect and that they were never prevented from discussing the lecture.
Any students who refused would not have been allowed to attend, despite the lecture forming an integral part of their Practice of Politics module. Those who watched the lecture in 2020, and those attending Professor Hall’s lecture were not required to sign an undertaking.
Several first years declined to discuss the lecture at all, citing fears over the consequences of breaking the undertaking. However, Tallulah Brady, a first year PPEist, told Cherwell that she was “not at all bothered” by the fact the lecture was not recorded, stating it was boring and she had no incentive to watch it again. While also refusing to discuss the contents of the lecture in detail, Tallulah stated that she did “not remember there being anything particularly controversial” about the material. On the subject of the undertaking and the lecture’s politically sensitive label she commented “I was/am under the impression it was given this level of caution to protect the contributors and participants from potential consequences. Exactly what those consequences are or could be I do not know. “
This confusion about what in the lecture constituted politically sensitive content is echoed by Struan Hancock, a second year PPEist who attended the lecture last year: “I believe Oxford is a centre of learning where it is possible to have frank and free discussions about difficult issues. I’m confused why the department felt the need to remove the possibility of students re-watching the content. Students only had one chance to watch the lectures.
“The lecture was a nuanced analysis with opinions from multiple viewpoints on the state of democracy in China. Who do they believe will be offended by an academic conversation?”
The Department of Politics and International Relations told Cherwell: “It is not departmental practice to label courses or lectures ‘politically sensitive’ and restrict access to them on those grounds. In exceptional circumstances, to advise and protect students, we will alert them that material is considered sensitive by external bodies and that they may need to seek further guidance. Oxford freshers have never been prevented or discouraged from discussing any of their prelims lectures, nor would they ever be; and course instructors have accommodated every student who has reported a documented learning needs assessment, and will continue to do so.”
Image credit: Edward He