Too tight a grip will choke successful institutions

Creeping political interference in universities, from the UK to Hungary and the US, is part of a worrying shift in attitudes towards higher education

August 24, 2017
Academic freedom supporter
Source: Getty

The victory of Allied forces in the Second World War was not only the defining moment of the modern age, it was also conclusive proof of the “inherent inefficiencies of dictatorship and the inherent efficiencies of freedom”.

So said J. K. Galbraith, speaking like a true economist, in an article published in 1945.

It’s an argument that could be wheeled out on behalf of universities, in which a commitment to academic freedom and institutional autonomy is held sacred.

These freedoms, operating within certain frameworks, are so central to our understanding of higher education in the world’s leading systems that it might seem unnecessary to restate the case.

But a reading of the barometer in universities will show that pressure has been building in recent years.

Governments take an increasing interest in research priorities and outputs; fee-paying students exert pressure from below; and hostile media and rising populism all register.

So too do challenges from countries that do not share democratic ideals, as illustrated by the disturbing censorship of hundreds 
of articles on the Chinese website of a Cambridge University Press journal, China ­Quarterly, at the insistence of local import agencies.

Its initial acquiescence raised urgent questions about how academia should handle interference of this sort: is some freedom better than none, or are there red lines to be drawn?

Elsewhere in our news pages, we report on another academic freedom debate: the ongoing battle of Left vs Right, and the way that universities cope with speakers from the unsavoury political fringe.

The issue has been reignited by recent clashes in Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia, sparked by violent protests from far-right groups.

As we report, several US universities have responded by blocking planned appearances by one white supremacist on safety grounds, while insisting that they remain committed to freedom of speech.

Again, this raises the tricky question of how unfettered certain freedoms should be, and highlights that these tensions and pressures being felt by institutions are generated not only outside campuses but exist within university communities themselves.

In a separate interview this week, Carol Christ, the new chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, addresses her iconic institution’s attitude to free speech, in light of recent controversies.

Christ’s intention is to make this a central theme across the university for the coming academic year, with a renewed commitment based on her belief that freedom of speech is something that “people from all political persuasions have a deep vested interest in”.

On the subject of political vested interests, it’s worth remembering that one of Donald Trump’s many Twitter interventions as US president involved a direct threat to Berkeley’s funding following the cancellation of a talk by a right-wing provocateur earlier this year.

In our cover story, meanwhile, we report from Hungary on one of the most high-profile challenges to university autonomy over the past year.

Our Europe correspondent travels to Budapest to investigate the implications 
of prime minister Viktor Orbán’s reforms, the motivations behind them and other aspects of what critics see as creeping political controls on universities.

These include the appointment of new chancellors, appointed directly by Orbán, who oversee spending and have the final say on recruitment, salaries and promotions, and ministry-appointed trustees who introduce another element of state oversight.

Back in the UK, such direct and insidious intervention is anathema. But there will be those who sense a worrying shift in attitudes towards higher education, not least in the ongoing media negativity that is coalescing into a generalised view that “something must be done about the universities”.

As centres of influence outside government, universities will always be targets for control.

But the reality is that, in spite of those pressures, universities in the world’s leading systems, including the UK, have far more autonomy than is often acknowledged – to the extent that even senior and experienced politicians seem shocked to learn that they cannot, for example, order them to pay their vice-chancellors less.

That (the autonomy, not the inflated pay) is as it should be, and as it must remain – with the proviso that it is coupled with strong governance, transparency and accountability.

Within that framework, autonomy and freedom are essential; they don’t just contribute to the efficiency of research and higher education, they are integral to their success.

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