Staff are silenced by fear of reprisals

August 4, 2006

Poll shows lecturers are alarmed at growing threats to their academic freedom, reports Jessica Shepherd

Four in ten academics say their freedom to express controversial or unpopular opinions is under attack, according to a poll carried out by ICM for The Times Higher .

The survey exposes the extent to which university staff fear academic freedom is being eroded. Some 39 per cent of 502 respondents said their right to question received wisdom - enshrined in the Education Reform Act 1988 - was in jeopardy. Some 38 per cent of professors, 45 per cent of senior lecturers and 36 per cent of lecturers said that their academic freedom was under attack.

A separate Times Higher online poll also probed views on academic freedom.

More than 40 per cent of 107 respondents said they felt pressure over what they could say about their work and institution. Almost a quarter admitted to self-censorship out of a fear of their institution, and a similar proportion self-censored lest their peers disapproved. One had been fired for falling foul of guidelines, two had been officially disciplined and nine unofficially reprimanded.

The Education Reform Act 1988 made it a legal right for academics to have the "freedom to question and test received wisdom and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or the privileges they may have".

Many academics say managerial culture is eroding freedom.

Sally Hunt, joint general secretary of the University and College Union, said: " The Times Higher poll should act as a wake-up call. Universities must protect the rights of academics and the reputation of UK research.

"The number feeling threatened is unlikely to decrease unless universities stop their interventionist approach to research and stop overburdening academics with teaching hours and bureaucracy."

David Rhind, vice-chancellor of City University, added a clause on academic freedom to the university's charter in April.

He said: "There is not much point in having a university unless you have academic freedom. I would defend to my death the right to express an opinion that might offend a university or the Government, as long as there was strong evidence for it."

ICM interviewed 502 academics by telephone between June 6 and June 12.   

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