Blame piled on managers

August 4, 2006

Staff complain of control culture among those at the top, Jessica Shepherd reports

Lecturers blame a perceived decline in academic freedom on moves to establish a "management culture" in universities.

Academics who responded to a Times Higher -ICM poll said that their right to question received wisdom and voice controversial and unpopular opinions was under threat as managers sought to increase control over every aspect of their working lives.

The reasons given for increased management control varied. They included the pressure exerted on staff by universities eager to boost research assessment scores. Academics reported "excessive" control over what is published and where it is published as well as a curbing of their rights over their research.

Increased corporate investment in institutions, particularly where deals give investors first call on research outputs and spin-offs, were blamed for growing intervention from managers.

The increase in teaching duties, due to the growth in student numbers and a perceived promotion of the rights of fee-paying students ahead of academic freedoms, were also cited as drivers of managerialism.

MPs have also been blamed for trying to curb academic freedom in recent months. The original legislation of the Terrorism Bill could have implicated anyone who unwittingly imparted knowledge that a terrorist could find useful.

Kevin Moloney, a media lecturer at Bournemouth University, said: "A management culture has changed higher education. The business model of higher education is, on the whole, opposed to dissent and this threatens academic freedom.

"Universities are meant to be sites of contestation and should stay that way. Every day we teach and write about sensitive subjects."

Andrew Charlesworth, a senior research fellow in the School of Law at Bristol University, said that there were tensions between an "increasingly commercially oriented managerial ethos" in university administrations and academics' expectations about the nature of their work.

He said: "There will always be fundamental clashes between the managerial approach of modern education and 'academic freedoms'. Some of these tensions are the deliberate result of policymaking, often at government level, and others are side effects or unexpected consequences of policy decisions within a university.

"It seems that many cries of 'you're infringing on my academic freedom' could be avoided by effective planning, open dialogue, clear advice and a willingness to be flexible in the creation and application of rules."

As shown in The Times Higher -ICM poll, professors and senior lecturers in particular believe academic freedom is being eroded. Gill Evans, a history professor at Cambridge University, said this might be because many enjoyed old-fashioned pre-1987 tenure.

She described this older generation as entering academe "confident that they would pursue the truth".

But John Hewitt, secretary of the Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards, argued: "I see no need to worry about the academic freedom of senior academics. They are armed with high salaries, permanent positions and bureaucratic clout.

"One should worry more about the academic rights of juniors. These are people who toil under an oppressive regime of endless temporary contracts, miserable salaries and the likelihood that any decent work they manage to do will be ripped off by the 'Prof' who presumes to 'advise' them."

jessica.shepherd@thes.co.uk

'AS SOON AS YOU BRING UP ANYTHING SENSITIVE, YOU'RE TOLD TO BACK OFF'

Jane (not her real name), an associate professor at a London university, considers herself a victim of the erosion of academic freedom.

Two years ago she presented her students with a controversial painting that provoked a discussion about religion. Several of her students took offence and complained to Jane's colleagues. They even threatened to destroy her computer.

What started as a well-intentioned debate ended in a performance review and a series of events that Jane believes have dogged her career ever since.

She said: "There is a certain rhetoric about academic freedom that is bandied about, but as soon as you want to bring up anything sensitive you are told to back off.

"My colleagues interfered and told me off. They told me to avoid talking about those issues. I told them that would be censoring myself and that it was an essential part of a university education to talk about thorny issues. I said that discussing those issues was an important part of history, but I was overruled.

"I am now extremely cautious and that has made me very angry. I make disclaimers now that these things are my personal opinions and nothing to do with the institutions.

"I have had experience in European and US universities and I feel strongly that academic freedom is more respected there. In Britain, the employer is given more rights than the employee."

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