Leading academics yesterday defended an eminent Oxford professor against a students’ call for him to be sacked for his links to an immigration think-tank.
Oxford Student Action for Refugees has circulated a petition seeking the removal of Professor David Coleman, a leading expert in demographics, because of his connections with MigrationWatch.
The students believe that because MigrationWatch warns about the negative effects of present and future immigration, it is inherently racist.
But Professor Coleman condemned what he called a “shameful attack on academic independence and freedom of speech”.
He questioned whether the students involved should be allowed to stay at the university themselves.
Among his defenders was Professor John Salt, director of the Migration Research Unit at University College London.
He said: “David Coleman is probably the best all-round demographer in the country when it comes to linking demographic information to immigration statistics.”
In 2005, Professor Salt concluded in work for the Home Office that there were around 500,000 illegal immigrants in Britain.
After shocked reactions to the size of his estimate, the then immigration minister, Des Browne, denied it was an official figure. It later turned out to be an underestimate.
There was more support from Professor Norman Stone, once Margaret Thatcher’s foreign policy adviser on Europe. He came under a similar attack from students at Oxford, where he was Professor of Modern History from 1984 to 1995, after he was accused of sexism.
Professor Stone said: “What a nuisance—it’s an absurd over-reaction. The poor darlings. It just shows they’ve got nothing better to do. They’re just striking attitudes. They’re a pest.” Professor Coleman co-founded MigrationWatch with Sir Andrew Green, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, in 2001 and remains an honorary consultant.
The think-tank emphasises the contribution of refugees to the country but doubts whether Britain can successfully handle current levels of immigration.
The students claim the professor is bringing Oxford into disrepute by using his academic title to legitimise alleged anti-immigration views in the media.
They have petitioned Oxford’s vice-chancellor, Dr John Hood, to “consider the suitability of Coleman’s continued tenure as a professor”.
The petition also condemns his work for the Galton Institute, a charity which conducts research into eugenics, usually defined as the study of methods of improving the human race.
Hitting back, the professor told the student newspaper Cherwell: “I am extremely pleased to have been involved in the foundation of MigrationWatch. The Galton Institute is a highly admirable institution and does a great deal of good.
“There are some aspects of eugenics that are regularly practised by the medical profession today, for example the abortion of foetuses that show signs of severe disability. Other aspects are deplorable.”
Professor Coleman also attacked the students for betraying university ideals.
He said: “It is a shameful attempt, of the most intolerant and totalitarian kind, to suppress the freedom of analysis and informed comment which it is the function of universities to cherish.
“I am ashamed that Oxford students should behave in this way. It is the signatories who will bring the university into disrepute, and it is they who should reconsider their membership.
“Under no circumstances will I refrain from using my academic title.”
One of the students behind the petition, Kieran Hutchinson Dean, 19, said the aim was to invite debate.
He said: “We are not expecting the professor to be sacked straight away. But we ask that he refrains from using his academic status when promoting his own views.
“If he does not refrain he is representing the university as a whole and many of us do not agree with his views.
“Professor Coleman cofounded MigrationWatch which continues to spew out anti-immigration tirades that fuel the far-Right BNP.
“He gives MigrationWatch a credibility and credence it does not deserve.”
The modern history and politics student, from Leeds, added: “Our campaign against Coleman has been characterised as a personal attack, but it is more about opening up a wider debate.
“The main point is to raise awareness of his views and affiliations among students.
“Academic freedom is not absolute and people using their academic titles should recognise this.”
He said the petition had attracted a lot of support.