Leader: Rise up, freedom fighters

The cornerstone of the academy is the liberty to pursue ideas and knowledge without constraint. It needs vigilant defending

February 11, 2010

One of the biggest problems with academic freedom is defining it. Should it include free speech, as the UK organisation Academics for Academic Freedom (AFAF) maintains? Should it include the freedom to criticise the governance of one's institution, as has developed in the UK by convention? Broadly speaking, most people would agree that academic freedom is the liberty to teach, pursue and discuss knowledge and to express ideas without restriction or interference. And, as with most liberties, it carries concomitant responsibilities and duties.

Every so often, when a transgression occurs, there is a flurry of indignation and then - nothing. There is no investigation, no follow-up; most worrying, there is little discussion of the principles thrown up by each case. But then, who is there to stand up for academic freedom, to fight its corner? Here in the UK, the University and College Union has published a statement on the subject, but it doesn't really get involved in individual cases. AFAF plays an important role in raising awareness, but it takes on only the few cases that suit its political agenda. The Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards does pursue individual investigations and send letters of protest to vice-chancellors about breaches, but it lacks the clout to deliver significant results.

If there is no outcry from the academy, no public scrutiny and no lessons learnt, there is also no impact on the outside world: society at large is no wiser as to why such freedoms are so vital, both to the academy and ultimately to them, and deserving of protection. Terence Karran, a scholar of academic freedom and a senior academic in the Centre for Educational Research and Development at the University of Lincoln, argues that "it is incumbent on today's academics to voice, with passion and persuasion, the reasons for the continuance of academic freedom".

Unfortunately, passionate, persuasive people who stand up in defence of scholarly freedom are few and far between, especially now that times are tough and the challenges even tougher. The law does afford some protection, but it has never been tested in the courts. What is needed is an independent champion free of government funding and controls.

Many would say that apart from the erosion of job security, the biggest threat to academic freedom is the creeping culture of commercialisation. There is no doubt that universities are becoming more businesslike and managerial; they have little choice - especially when their public funding is being cut. This has implications for unfettered study. If you weaken academic freedom, "you are in very dangerous territory for the future of civilisation", one commentator says in our cover feature. "It is the best way of ensuring that knowledge moves on without being distorted by factors irrelevant to the nature of the truth." How can we square that notion with the business ethos, which is often perceived to have a distorting effect? Perhaps the philanthropists of this world would do well to think beyond just helping to fund individual universities and consider how they could do something even more important and protect the academy for the future.

It's a rocky road ahead, and many predict that 2010 will be a "crunch year" for academic freedom. Lose it, warns AFAF's Dennis Hayes, "and you have not just lost a freedom, you have lost the university".


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