Fired up over academic freedom 1

September 1, 2006

It seems that there is a need for clarification regarding three quite different, if sometimes related, notions.

The first notion is academic freedom, which relates to the supposed intellectual, moral or natural right of a scholar to pursue a line of research or study without hindrance, and to espouse, profess or publish the results of that study without censorship. It is broadly recognised by institutions and by a number of governments.

Ethics should, and finance does, limit this freedom in practice. This notion does not help or hinder chartered psychologist John Radford's wish to publish material on Sherlock Holmes (Letters, August 18) - unless those studies are the product of his academic employment.

The second notion is academic autonomy. This is an idea of freedom constrained: that is, it is the concept of a subject or discipline's self-governance. Radford could come to grief here if his study of Holmes claimed to provide insights in psychology and a significant number of his psychology peers held that his methodol-ogy was not valid.

Academic autonomy holds that the judgment of value of a work belongs to the methodology and criteria of the relevant discipline. Radford would be at liberty to publish the work but he might find it difficult to include it in a research assessment exercise submission or to gain space for it in a refereed psychology journal.

Radford's work on Holmes (assuming that it is not an academic treatise on the psychology of forensic investigation) has the same academic standing as Frank Ellis's pronouncements on race and homosexuality - none. His right to publish is the same: the free speech right to espouse one's views - to the degree to which it is accorded by law.

The third notion that causes so many people so much trouble and one that caused Robert Jackson to slip (Features, August 18) is institutional autonomy - which Jackson confuses with academic freedom and academic autonomy. This is the idea that academic freedom and academic auton-omy can be safeguarded only if academic institutions are self-governing.

If that is the argument for institutional autonomy, it is almost certainly wrong. Certainly, any time that I can recall institutional leaders talking about the importance of institutional autonomy, it was not to protect the rights of researchers but to allow leaders to shape their institution and its studies according to their ambitions. This is the auton-omy that Jackson refers to - but with a hint of the romanticism that would suggest that vice-chancellors seek freedom from government funding to prevent interference in the academic development or running of their universities.

By the same token, Jackson's solution of private sponsorship stopping us being pipers of the Government's tune would only make us pipers for our other "investors".

In principle, the first two ideas are essential to the real academy and to learning. The third idea, institutional autonomy, appears to be a notion that was valid in a long passed era when scholars did govern their own institutions.

Andrew Morgan
Swansea

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