UK lowest on freedom list

September 28, 2007

The UK is the worst country in Europe for supporting and protecting academic freedom and free speech, according to a new research paper, writes Louise Radnofsky.

Britain is "the sick man of Europe" for academic freedom, lagging behind 23 European Union countries, according to the paper from Lincoln University.

The UK suffers because academics have comparatively weak job protection, more limited self-governance and, in particular, because the UK lacks formal guarantees of freedom of expression or academic freedom, the paper says. But it was argued this week that this fails to take into account strong cultural protections not explicitly set out in laws.

The research was carried out by Terence Karran, a researcher at Lincoln's Centre for Educational Research and Development. He studied legal provisions in 23 EU members, and graded countries' provisions as "high", "medium" or "low".

Spain, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Finland came out best, with the UK at the bottom of the table. "In terms of the health of academic freedom, the UK is clearly the sick man of Europe," Dr Karran wrote in a Higher Education Policy paper presenting his findings.

He blamed "the (apparent) need for greater managerial professionalism, both as the participation in higher education rises, and as the universities' research role becomes ever more important in determining national prosperity within the emerging global knowledge economy".

The right of academics to "question received wisdom" and to put forward unpopular ideas was enshrined in the 1988 Education Reform Act. But this Act had the effect of weakening academic freedom by removing tenure from newly hired academics and staff at former polytechnics, Dr Karran said.

Dennis Hayes, founder of Academics for Academic Freedom, said UK academics suffered from "cosy indifference" to the problem.

"Academic freedom in the UK is constrained by a politicised and compliant academic culture in which debate is discouraged for fear of causing offence to colleagues, students, ministers or the quangocracy," he said.

But Conor Gearty, director of the Centre for the Study of Human Rights at the London School of Economics, said it was important to distinguish between formal constitutional law and how it was implemented.

"Practice on the ground often reveals a stronger cultural commitment to freedom than is apparent from perusal of the laws," he said.



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