Does the government really care about academic freedom?

Many doubt the Conservatives’ sincerity on defending academic freedom. Lee Jones gives them a chance to prove their doubters wrong.

Lee Jones is Professor in International Politics at Queen Mary University of London

The disgraceful treatment of Professor Kathleen Stock – forced out of Sussex University by a sustained campaign of abuse and intimidation – has focused attention on the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill making its way through parliament.

Some have observed that the bill in its current form would not have protected Stock, calling for an amendment to ban students from agitating against their professors.

Andrew Tettenborn has rightly criticised the idea of this so-called “Stock amendment”. Restricting students’ freedom to speak and organise is not just wrong in principle, it would be deeply hypocritical in a bill ostensibly committed to free speech.

Tettenborn also sensibly argued that it would be impractical to ban intimidating protests, concluding that the solutiofreen can only lie “in the hands of universities themselves”. But it is precisely the failure of universities to uphold academic freedom that is inciting parliament to intervene in the first place. So, we are back to square one.

First and foremost

There is a straightforward solution to this conundrum. The bill should be amended to make academic freedom the primary duty of universities, to which all other duties should be subordinate, and to define academic freedom broadly. This would compel universities to refashion their internal governance around the defence of academic freedom.

It would also show that the Conservatives are actually serious about defending academic freedom, rather than merely using the legislation as a propaganda tool in a tedious culture war with woke students.

Currently, the Bill merely reminds universities that it must take “reasonably practicable” steps to secure “freedom of speech within the law”. This is not a new duty – the 1986 Education (No. 2) Act already directs universities to “actively promote” freedom of speech. As the legal expert James Murray has argued, in its present form the new Bill does not substantially enhance this duty, nor does it afford real protection to academics.

If the current Bill is passed unamended, nothing will really change. Universities will continue to argue – as they nearly always do when controversy strikes – that they are “balancing” this responsibility with other statutory duties and institutional values, such as the avoidance of “harassment”, or the promotion of equality, diversity and inclusion.

Universities must therefore be directed to prioritise academic freedom above all other values and duties. Sadly, universities need to be reminded that their primary reason for existence is to facilitate the pursuit of knowledge through fearless inquiry and rigorous debate. Indeed, as Stefan Collini argues, this is the only good reason to support universities. Their other functions – research and teaching – can be carried on by a range of other organisations.

What distinguishes – or should distinguish – universities from institutions like think tanks, private companies and schools is that they are truly free to explore ideas that donors, shareholders and governments might like to remain unexplored. Without academic freedom, universities no longer have any special reason to exist. It should, therefore, be their primary duty.

Broader and wider

Moreover, academic freedom should be defined much more broadly than in the current bill. This defines academic freedom as scholars’ “freedom within the law and within their field of expertise to (a) to question and test received wisdom, and (b) to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions” without being disadvantaged. The “freedom within the law” qualifier is objectionable as it allows governments arbitrarily to infringe on academic freedom through other legislation.

The “field of expertise” qualifier is also problematic – and it would not have protected Kathleen Stock. What sets academics aside from most other people is that they are given time, space and resources to think deeply about the world. This can generate insights and ideas that are relevant well beyond a narrowly-conceived “field of expertise”.

Stock is an analytical philosopher specialising in fiction and imagination. Her feminist commitments and intellectual capability means she also has important things to say about women’s rights – but an enemy of her freedom to speak on these subjects could easily argue that this is not her “field of expertise”. If we want academics to contribute to public debate – and we should – this restriction should be eliminated.

Another shortcoming is that the bill’s definition of academic freedom does not extend to teaching. A core part of academic freedom is autonomy in the design of curricula, including the selection of theories, concepts and readings. Bristol University’s shameful treatment of Professor Stephen Greer – accused but cleared of “Islamophobia” but then still barred from teaching the course that prompted students to hound him – shows that this needs explicit protection.

Conservatives cannot rail against cases like Greer’s, or “woke” campaigns to “decolonise” the curriculum, and then fail to add this protection. For the same reason, Conservatives must stop bashing scholars who choose to teach in ways they do not like. Freedom cuts both ways.

The management

Finally, academics need the freedom to criticise university managers, precisely because they often act in ways that curtail academic freedom, and undermine other core values of university life. Managerialism, often in service of commercial objectives, is actually one of the biggest threats to academic freedom today.

Academics come under constant pressure to tailor their teaching content and inflate grades to please student consumers, game the Teaching Excellence Framework, and climb up league table rankings. Managers bully staff whose research is not seen to fit with “strategic priorities” for Research Excellence Framework and grant income, even closing down whole areas of study, as seen recently at Leicester.

Defining academic freedom more broadly, and enshrining it as universities’ primary duty, will force universities to transform their internal governance to defend this principle. They will be compelled to abolish restrictions, procedures and rules that inhibit academic freedom, while appointing leaders to drive institutional and cultural changes that promote it. And, with a stronger definition of the duty, the Office for Students will have real teeth to enforce it where necessary.

Failure to amend the Bill will leave it stillborn. Universities will continue to insist they are “balancing” the duty against others, and that “balance” will mostly be determined by vice-chancellors’ sense of the way in which political winds are blowing. Sussex’s management only began robustly defending Kathleen Stock and academic freedom in the past couple of months, after Stock had already faced years of workplace abuse – probably because the government is leaning on universities to do more. But this leaves the defence of academic freedom dependent upon external political pressure.

This may suit those who see universities as a useful whipping boy in Britain’s dreary culture wars. But for anyone interested in decisively protecting academic freedom – and, by extension, protecting universities from political interference – it is completely inadequate.

Many doubt the Conservatives’ sincerity when they claim to want to defend free speech and academic freedom. They now have a chance to prove their doubters wrong – or right.

2 responses to “Does the government really care about academic freedom?

  1. “The ‘freedom within the law’ qualifier is objectionable as it allows governments arbitrarily to infringe on academic freedom through other legislation.”

    I suspect giving 200,000ish academics (and a few million students too?) the equivalent of parliamentary privilege to be immune to all other laws restricting their speech during their work – and then construing “their work” broadly to include things apparently outside their nominal expertise – might be a step too far for any government, never mind this specific one.

    Libel, incitement, conspiracy, privacy, contempt of court, data protection, national security, noise pollution, etc. etc. are all generally accepted as reasons to restrict speech that – especially when it’s unclear why a requirement to follow them restricts any sort of genuine academic research or teaching – there’s no chance of them being given an “except academics” exemption (which would in practice become an “except everyone” exemption once the new private University of Free Speech starts handing out zero-hours honorary research contracts).

    If there’s specific speech-related legislation you believe does restrict academic freedom by being required to follow it, you probably need to be rather more specific about what it is, how it’s currently used to restrict academic freedom, how a blanket exemption would improve academic freedom, and to an extent why it’s appropriate that academics but not other people be given a sole exemption.

    For example, you specifically call out “harassment” as a type of speech which academics should be allowed to do – or at least, be absolutely assured that their academic statements won’t be considered it, which is much the same thing in practice. So, how would a university practically defend “academic freedom” in a case where one academic is restricting another’s freedom, trying to put them under pressure to quit, perhaps, by a pattern of behaviour which might – if they weren’t academics – be considered “harassment”, but which the academic doing it defends as being part of free academic debate?

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