Market success relies on academic freedom

October 29, 1999

Academic freedom is an uncomfortable concept constantly under threat. Two such threats are reported in this issue of The THES. One (Whistleblowers, page 6) raises the question of whether the Public Interest Disclosure Act has paradoxically compromised the job security explicitly guaranteed to academics by the 1988 Education Reform Act. The second reports rising concern in Canada that commercial activity may restrict academic freedom (page 12).

Much advice is given to institutional managers on how to handle internal disputes so as to ensure that complainants cannot go to the press with impunity under the Public Interest Disclosure Act. Vice-chancellors are even considering setting up an appeal system for this purpose. The result is that academics who get any procedural step wrong may find themselves sacked for bringing their institution into disrepute.

Such a limitation is not compatible with the freedom to speak out enshrined in the 1988 Act. Nor can it plausibly be argued that that freedom relates only to academic matters. Is it an academic matter to object to an assessment regime or question the use of research funds? Academics using their freedom to speak out may embarrass their institution. Tough. That is something universities should tolerate, even defend, especially as they become more involved in commercial activities. Without this protection academics will pull their punches and the services universities uniquely offer will not be worth having.

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