Chavan Kissoon is a Lecturer in Digital Education at the University of Lincoln

Terence Karran is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Policy at the University of Lincoln

Over the last decade, UK universities have increasingly been embracing digital transformation to increase business efficiency and to expand the scope and reach of their teaching and research.

Digital transformation strategies abound across the sector, and digital transformation is seen as essential in order to increase capabilities and maintain the UK’s position as a global leader in higher education.

As digital technology has already played an underappreciated but significant role in UK universities, in terms of both reforms at governmental and institutional levels, it is important to understand its impact on academic freedom. The move to digital needs to be understood not only from a business-centric perspective but also in more critical and worker-centric ways.

Today sees the release of our “Academic Freedom in the Digital University” sector-wide research report, carried out in collaboration with the UCU. Our research is based on a dataset of over 2,100 survey responses and a survey instrument with over 50 questions. It explores how digital technology-powered performance management practices, metrics and the culture of continuous evaluation mediate power relations between academic staff and their university employers in the contemporary digital university.

Technology is not neutral

Digital has become a key variable shaping how academic work is experienced. It enables the intensification of work and the move towards work becoming boundaryless – as well as the increased metricisation of work, which can result in rising occupational stress and an academic wellbeing crisis.

As digital transformation is here to stay and academic work continues to change in digitally-shaped ways, it becomes increasingly important to recognise that technology is not neutral especially when it comes to how power is manifested in the workplace.

One lens to use to understand the changing nature of power in the university workplace is academic freedom. While universities do recognise academic freedom, the de jure constitutional and legislative instruments which provide protection for academic freedom are either absent or severely defective, and academics have long had a low level of de facto protection.

An erosion of freedom

Our research shows that academic freedom is now being further eroded through digital technology-powered performance management practices that can undermine individual academic freedom through ushering in a real-time institution-wide performance monitoring infrastructure that allows academics to be compared and ranked across a range of dimensions.

Overall, these new forms of worker performance management are leading to reduced academic freedom, both in teaching and in research. For example, due to the affordances of digital technologies, it is now common for universities to apply generic institution-wide quality standards, and to base decision-making on these, as one survey respondent reflected:

The university is implementing a one-size fits all approach that fails to recognise the differences in subject areas, their varied content, modes of teaching, resources, and the like. This is only possible because of the move to on-line systems. It is not the on-line systems per se, but the fact that now the efficiencies of e.g., life sciences, are evaluated against the efficiencies of philosophy, which they never used to be

The impact of some of these mundane digitally-facilitated standardise-and-monitor practices are reductions in the academic freedom for teaching:

The university has regularised all assessment structures to a single template, and because this has led to student dissatisfaction, now pressures academics to make full use of the potential to use [VLE name redacted] for discussions / quizzes etc, however inappropriate to the content / learning outcomes. I think it’s because they’ve invested so much money in the platform that they now need to prove to everyone that it’s making a measurable difference; it’s all very top-down, [with] edicts and memo’s from on high.

Academic freedom for research is also impacted in multiple ways, including, for example, in how institutions monitor the alignment of academics’ research to preferred institutional research themes and monitor and use income generation as a key performance criteria.

Protecting academic freedom

In order to cultivate a culture where academic freedom thrives and universities reap the quality benefits that flow from environments that value and enable greater academic freedom we make a range of recommendations.

To begin with, it is key for stakeholders in the sector to recognise that institutional digital technology is a variable that can change power relations between management and academic staff, change the incentive and disincentive structures in university work environments, and impact the wellbeing of academics – and to understand the ways in which it can do this.

For universities specifically, the report makes specific recommendations to protect academic freedom from further technology-instigated erosion.

There is a need for universities to develop policies around the ethical implementation of technology, along the lines of the UCU Principles for Protecting Academic Freedom.

Underpinning this, there is a need for universities to become more transparent and open in communicating to unions and academics their aims for what each specific technology that relates to performance management is intended to achieve operationally and strategically (for example: will it be used to categorise and rank academic staff in ways not openly communicated, and inform recruitment and retention decisions?).

To help prevent the unintended erosion of academic freedom through the introduction of new technology-powered processes, there is a need for universities to conduct technology impact assessments before purchasing and implementing new technologies.

Technology impact assessments would consider the potential impacts of new technologies on power relations between management and academic staff. The process would include union representatives in the evaluating and rolling out of new technologies, with the final reports made available to all staff. The impact assessments would ensure the criteria when purchasing and implementing new technologies included consideration of changes in management/staff power relations and potential wellbeing impacts, and should be updated periodically – including by conducting an assessment of the actual impact the technology has had and comparing this to the envisaged impact.

As with any initiative, technologically-powered or not, regularly assessing the scale of foreseen and unforeseen unintended impacts is important in order to mitigate the counterproductive impacts inherent in any type of change initiative.

You can read more about our findings and recommendations in our full report, published by UCU.

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