Academics back refusing funding over human rights concerns

Survey finds one in five scholars self-censored their teaching when students from autocratic states were in their class

November 13, 2020
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The majority of UK social scientists believe that academic freedom is under threat and are in favour of universities refusing funding from foreign organisations with a poor human rights record, according to a study.

A survey of more than 1,500 social scientists based at UK universities found that 75 per cent thought that academics should not accept money from foreign organisations, individuals or governments that violate human rights.

Just over half (56 per cent) of respondents said that universities should end partnerships and raise concerns with a national regulator or ombudsperson if an external partner was found to be pressuring the university by attempting to change the content of a degree programme.

The survey was conducted by academics from the universities of Exeter and Oxford in association with the Academic Freedom and Internationalisation Working Group (AFIWG), which comprises eight scholars across the UK. Last month, the AFIWG published a draft code of conduct aimed at protecting academic freedom in internationalisation activities; 60 per cent of respondents said they favoured the adoption of such a code of conduct within their institution.

Most of those surveyed said that they did not know whether their department had guidelines on academic freedom (65 per cent) and that they considered academic freedom to be under threat at UK universities (70 per cent).

Almost two-fifths (39 per cent) of respondents expressed concern about the freedom of academics to conduct research without commercial or political interference, while nearly a third (30 per cent) felt academic freedom was under threat from institutional censorship.

While the majority (73 per cent) of respondents said they do not self-censor when teaching students from autocratic states, 20 per cent said they did and 15 per cent said they self-censored when reporting fieldwork findings. Fifty-eight per cent said the nationality of their students did not have an impact on the content of their teaching, but 23 per cent said it did.

John Heathershaw, a professor specialising in the international politics of conflict, security and development at the University of Exeter and a member of the AFIWG, who led the research, said that the findings show that “people have wide-ranging concerns about external and especially internal attempts to curb academic freedom”.

“UK social scientists are most concerned about how the changing nature of global higher education is exposing them to risk and how their institutions are managing risk rather than about the foreign ‘threats’ themselves,” he said.

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