The real threats to freedom

March 19, 2015

Miriam David’s review of Who’s Afraid of Academic Freedom? (“Without let or hindrance”, Books, 12 March) was a thought-provoking read. However, from the review it seems that the book is largely concerned with the US. Academic freedom here in the UK is under a different kind of threat: what we might broadly conceive of as being held accountable for what we teach and what we research. The rise of the National Student Survey, of students as consumers and of evaluations of almost everything has had a chilling effect on content and substance. Will we always feel able to challenge students with material that they may not “enjoy” or may find offensive if this means lower scores in league tables?

More worrying is academic freedom in the context of research. What about the sort of research that is thought not to score well in the research excellence framework? It may not be long before it is being suggested to researchers: “Wouldn’t topic x be slightly better in terms of trying to get policymakers on board?” What if no one in any one school is keen on doing research that will have impact? Someone has to. Will we be directed? Pressure is mounting institutionally and individually for a solid record of research grants being applied for and obtained. Grants do not attract to all forms of research, possibly skewing the focus of the research community yet more. Last, what if universities suggested that they would support, through research leave or conference funding, only research that fitted its own strategic objectives, whatever they may be? It is these more pervasive and insidious pressures relating to our everyday lives as teachers and researchers that seem to be the real and long-term worries for academics and their freedom.

David Mead
Professor of UK human rights law
University of East Anglia

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