Unshackled minds help institutions to conquer the greatest heights

The top-ranked universities allow their scholars the most freedom, a lesson many governments have yet to learn, warns Terence Karran

September 29, 2011

Credit: Paul Bateman

At the launch of every new set of global university rankings, rectors, vice-chancellors and academic staff ponder: what is so special about the likes of Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge that enables them to dominate the rankings, year after year?

Clearly, academic traditions of excellence and resources are important, as the generosity of Harvard's alumni and the work of Oxford University Endowment Management Ltd demonstrate. However, recent research suggests that other, less obvious, attributes may account for their continued success.

Academic freedom is an unusual concept, often invoked by academics who misinterpret or misunderstand what it means. David Rabban has reported that, while he was the legal counsel of the American Association of University Professors, several professors of medicine asserted that universities had violated their academic freedom by limiting their clinical income to $100,000 (£64,922).

Similarly, many university presidents, vice-chancellors and rectors often pontificate at degree ceremonies about the importance of academic freedom to their universities, only to quickly forget, in the face of adverse publicity, that the concept requires them to support their staff against such external attacks. Moreover, there are many commentators (some within academia) who argue that, for the modern university in the 21st century, such ideas are anachronistic, while failing to question why such "outdated" principles are still upheld at many of the best universities in the world.

Universities such as Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge regularly dominate the global university rankings, while retaining a high regard for academic freedom. Oxford's strategic plan, for example, states that: "The most fundamental value, underpinning all of our scholarly activity, is academic freedom, defined as the freedom to conduct research, teach, speak and publish, subject to the norms and standards of scholarly inquiry, without interference or penalty, wherever the search for truth and understanding may lead."

Some national governments have introduced reforms in recent years to improve the positions of their universities within the Times Higher Education World University Rankings and enable them to better compete with institutions such as Harvard and Cambridge within the emerging global higher education marketplace. These reforms - usually focusing on the need to manage the academic process and make universities more productive - have frequently led to a reduction in academic freedom. For example, the Danish University Act of 2003, which was designed to strengthen the university sector's global competitiveness, gives departmental heads the formal power to tell individual academic staff which academic tasks to perform, and the research interests of academics must conform to the university's strategic framework. Similarly, Finland's 2009 University Act, which advocated radical changes to governance by encouraging private sector participation in university governance and altered the tenure status of staff, was designed to improve universities' chances of international success.

However, the results of my recent research with colleague Julian Beckton into academic freedom in the US suggest that such legislation will not improve international rankings; indeed, it may do the opposite.

The absence of legislative protection for academic freedom in the US led to the 1970 AAUP Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which has become the quasi-legal guarantor of individual academic freedom there. We examined the degree to which universities complied with the main elements of the AAUP statement in a sample of the 100 largest and most research-active private and public universities to discover the level of protection for academic freedom in the US.

Of the 200 "best" universities in the THE World University Rankings 2010-11, 72 are from the US and half of these were included in the sample. Statistical tests showed that the level of compliance with each of the main planks of the AAUP's academic freedom statement (on teaching, research, extramural utterance, tenure and governance) among these 36 "best" universities was significantly higher than in the rest of the sample. Less than 3 per cent of the sample in the top 200 did not comply with the AAUP guidelines. The comparable figure for universities outside the top 200 that did not comply was 18 per cent. The disparity is most marked when tenure, a major guarantor of academic freedom, is examined. All the universities in the sample in the top 200 observed the AAUP's guidelines on tenure, whereas 22 per cent of the sample outside the top 200 ignored them.

The results suggest that reforms that undermine academic freedom, far from aiding universities to compete more effectively and achieve better academic excellence rankings, appear likely to do the reverse. As institutions such as Harvard continue to demonstrate, academic freedom is both a hallmark of and a prerequisite for research, scholastic and institutional excellence.

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