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Governance – what counts as academic?

Hugh Jones wonders what counts as “academic” when thinking about academic governance.
This article is more than 5 years old

Hugh Jones is a freelance HE consultant. You’ll find a daily #HigherEducationPostcard if you follow him on Twitter.

In the classic Father Ted episode, the three priests are being visited by three bishops from the Vatican – and in an attempt to avoid theological controversy, Ted is coaching the bibulous Father Jack to respond to all questions with “That would be an ecumenical matter.”

In the olden days university managers often had a similar line, responding to governing body members with “That would be an academic matter”. It was a well-established distinction, supported in some cases by statutes which give Senate a formal role in decision-making. And it’s a distinction which is challenged by the new regulatory arrangements in England.

The Office for Students’ role in promoting closer scrutiny by governing bodies of academic matters prompts the question – what is reserved for the academic? If governing bodies are accountable for academic quality and standards and the quality of learning, what is the role of academic staff in leading and deciding on such matters? One way into this is to think about academic freedom.

Academic freedom

There’s a clear legal definition of academic freedom: it is set out in the 1988 Education Reform Act and is “that academic staff have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institutions”. These words are repeated in the Higher Education and Research Act 2-17. So it’s worth exploring the epistemic basis of ‘academic freedom’, and see if that gets us closer to understanding exactly what is an academic matter.

My contention is that there are two different meanings of academic freedom which often elide.

The first relates to academic discourse within a discipline, and grows from the question of competence in a discipline. Only those who have been judged competent in a discipline – typically by the award of a PhD – have the knowledge to contribute to decisions about what counts as knowledge in the discipline. I’ll call this type 1 academic freedom. This is the basis for peer review, and also for conventions about curriculum decisions and academic staff appointments being made by academic staff within a discipline.

The second is a broader approach, and has echoes of the legal definition of academic freedom. Academic staff generally understand that they should speak up when their expertise would be helpful, and society also expects this. It’s one of the important functions of universities that they are a place from which truth can be spoken to power. And where this is not respected – think Germany in the 1930’s – very bad things happen. In such instances, the exercise of academic freedom becomes a political act. In the case of a professor of transport studies criticising a government rail investment decision, the politics are tempered by the obvious relevance of the expertise. In the case of a professor of physics criticising Brexit, the politics are more obvious. But underlying both is an important point – it is socially useful and important to have trained minds critique public life. I’ll call this type 2 academic freedom.

Epistemic, social or political?

Now note that there’s different arguments for these two types of academic freedom. The first is epistemic – it follows a philosophical logic. The second is social or political – it (demonstrably) follows an established social norm. These different foundations mean that we need to be careful about which meaning is being used in discourse, and about what, if we are to judge the soundness of the argument. Explicitly, an appeal to social or political arguments cannot defeat a type 1 academic freedom argument; whereas because type 2 academic freedom is based upon social and political norms, it is obviously part of those norms and arguable within that frame of reference.

So how are we to understand and react to the increasing expectation of governing body oversight of academic matters? One requirement, for instance, is that governing bodies provide assurance on academic standards.

This is a type 1 academic question – that is, it relates to specialist knowledge in a discipline. Almost definitionally, a governing body cannot be competent to make actual judgements about academic standards in a subject. At very best they can receive assurances from the academic staff in the discipline that appropriate judgements are made, and they can use process evidence (eg external examiners’ reports, professional body accreditation) to corroborate these assurances. It follows that any view by the governing body that academic standards were not being maintained in an individual discipline would have to be based on strong specific evidence, not on broad statistical or other points. (Note that this isn’t the same as, for instance, a governing body having a view about changing degree classifications: logically this is about how comparabilities are expressed, not about specific individual knowledge claims.)

Type 1 or type 2?

The argument gets harder when we move to something like a governing body pushing for the inclusion of more employability skills in the curriculum. At first blush this looks like a type 1 academic freedom issue, and indeed if it took the form of the governing body saying “drop thermodynamics for cv writing” then it would straightforwardly be a knowledge contest. But if it took the form of a governing body determining that degree programmes at the institution should be taught so as to increase students’ employability, this is much less obviously a type 1 academic freedom issue, and more akin to a type 2 issue. It could – and will – be criticised by academic staff, but is not in itself a purely academic question.

This argument gives us a heuristic for thinking about the difference between strictly academic matters and matters of corporate governance. In short, if the decision rests on subject-specific knowledge, it is an academic matter for reasons of type 1 academic freedom. If it doesn’t relate to subject-specific knowledge, then the extent to which it is an academic matter depends upon its connection to the expertise of academic staff – it’s a type 2 academic freedom issue.

This means broadly that matters relating to teaching, learning and assessment – and to research – are academic because of expertise. Curriculum and award decisions are strictly academic because of subject knowledge.

What counts as academic?

All other matters, I would argue, are not necessarily academic matters – academic staff are interested internal participants in the discussion, but they do not necessarily bring unique relevant expertise which trumps the judgement of others. So, for instance, admissions, marketing, and governance are not strictly academic matters. Nor are matters of university organisation and management.

University governing bodies will need to shoulder more of the burden on this one. If they’re wise, they will engage the academic community, but they should do so in line with cultural norms of collegiality, not because academic staff generally have any particular expertise. Father Jack may need to learn some new lines.

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