Quarter of UK academics ‘bullied over scholarly views’

UCU survey finds British-based researchers perceive lesser protection for academic freedom compared with continental peers

May 25, 2017
People on a train
Source: Rex
Examples of bullying cited included ‘gossip and isolation’

Almost one in four lecturers at UK universities claims to have been subjected to bullying by colleagues over their academic views, a survey suggests.

Of 2,300 people who responded to a University and College Union poll on academic freedom, 23 per cent said that they had suffered workplace bullying on account of their scholarly views, while 27 per cent claimed that they had faced “psychological pressure” over their opinions.

Examples of bullying listed by staff include “isolation, exclusion, direct conflict [and] passive aggression” from management, “thinly veiled threats and undermining by line manager”, “gossip and isolation” and “political wranglings to take away courses and research interests", according to the UCU.

Eleven per cent of respondents also claimed that they had faced or been threatened with some sort of disciplinary action regarding their academic views, such as “dismissal for bringing the university into disrepute”, written warnings, poor evaluations, denial of sabbatical leave and denial of promotion.

Although many had not suffered overt pressure from colleagues, others reported feeling the need to “self-censor” their views to avoid conflict with management or peers, with 36 per cent saying that fear of reprisals had caused them to refrain from publishing, teaching or talking about a particular topic.

The results of the poll have been compiled by Terence Karran and Lucy Mallinson, of the University of Lincoln, for a report on academic freedom to be unveiled at the UCU congress, which takes place in Brighton on 27-29 May.

“If so many academics have a fear of being bullied for their views, what sort of example are we setting for students?” asked Professor Karran.

According to the report, Academic Freedom in the UK: Legal and Normative Protection in a Comparative Context, some 56 per cent of scholars felt that the research excellence framework had diminished their individual academic freedom, while 70 per cent were concerned that the teaching excellence framework would limit their ability to exercise academic freedom, such as their power to fail students who were not up to scratch or their scope to teach in a different or innovative manner.

Professor Karran, who was awarded a €300,000 (£259,000) European Union grant in 2013 to study academic freedom across its member nations, said that UK academics felt less confident about the protections of scholarly freedoms than their peers on the Continent.

While half (49 per cent) of the 4,200 EU scholars surveyed in Professor Karran’s EU-wide study felt that they had a high level of protection, just a fifth (22 per cent) of UK academics who answered the UCU survey reported feeling the same way. About half of UK respondents (52 per cent) felt that academic freedom protections had been eroded in recent years, whereas only 34 per cent of EU academics said that this was the case.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: 23% of scholars ‘bullied for views’

Reader's comments (2)

“political wranglings to take away courses and research interests" I observed several particularly crass examples of that during the restructuring of divisions within our department several years ago: academics were assessed on how their research areas matched the funding priorities of research councils. Several staff members, including at recently promoted professor, lost their jobs because the decision makers thought that particular research area will not be well funded in future. That research priorities change every few years, and that they are usually based on short-lived trends, apparently did not enter the minds of these decision makers. And the fundamental concept of academic freedom? Well, you can kiss that good-bye.
My experience is as a lecturer working in a department that's completely different from my discipline. Taking a very different approach in my research and publications has led to my isolation and exclusion from benefits that other colleagues have/had (e.g. mentorship and other forms of support from senior staff). I've also faced active hostility from colleagues when bringing my disciplinary background into discussions. I don't always see the point of the discussions about the contributions of my host department's discipline but I try to do my best to take part in the discussion. With the REF it gets even more complicated, because my work is rated within the department by colleagues who know nothing about my field and it is a mystery to me how they can assess the contributions of my work in REF terms.

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