Words by Liz Morrish, independent scholar. 

In August 2020, the UK think tank The Policy Exchange produced a report on Academic Freedom in the UK, alleging a chilling effect for staff and students expressing conservative opinions, particularly pro-Brexit or ‘gender critical’ ideas. This is an issue that was examined by a 2018 parliamentary committee on Human Rights which found a lack of evidence for serious infringements of free speech. In a university context, freedom of speech is protected under the Human Rights Act 1998 as long as the speech is lawful and does not contravene other university regulations on issues like harassment, bullying or inclusion. Some of these controversies have been firmly rebutted by Chris Parr and others who describe how the incidents have been over-hyped. 

Despite this, the government seems keen to appoint a free speech champion for universities which continues a campaign started by Sam Gyimah when he was minister for universities in 2018, and has been interpreted by some commentators as a ‘war on woke’. In the current climate of threats to university autonomy, many vice chancellors wonder whether this might be followed by heavy fines or reduced funding for those institutions deemed to fall on the wrong side of the culture wars.

While public concern has been directed to an imagined crisis of free speech, there are more significant questions to answer on the separate but related issue of academic freedom. Most university statutes echo legislation and guarantee academics ‘freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial and unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institutions.’ [Section 202 of the Education Reform Act 1988]. In reality, these freedoms are surrendered to the greater claims of academic capitalism, government policy, legislation, managers’ responses to the pandemic and more dirigiste approaches to academics’ work. 

Nevertheless, this government is ploughing ahead with policies designed to protect the freedom of speech that is already protected, while doing little to hold university managers to account for their very demonstrable violations of academic freedom. The government is suspicious of courses which declare a sympathy with social justice or which manifest a ‘progressive’ approach. This hostility also extends to critical race theory and black studies. Indeed, the New York Times has identified a right wing ‘Campaign to Cancel Wokeness’  on both sides of the Atlantic, citing a speech by the UK Equalities Minister, Kemi Badenoch, in which she said,  “We do not want teachers to teach their white pupils about white privilege and inherited racial guilt…Any school which teaches these elements of critical race theory, or which promotes partisan political views such as defunding the police without offering a balanced treatment of opposing views, is breaking the law.” 

This has now set a tone for ideological oversight which some university leaders seem keen to embrace. Universities will always wish to review their offerings to ensure they reflect academic currency and student choice. However, operating under the cover of emergency pandemic planning, some are now seeking to dismantle what they see as politically troublesome subject areas.

Let’s start with the most egregious and transparent attack on academic freedom. The University of Leicester Business School, known primarily for its disdain of management orthodoxy, has announced it will no longer support research in critical management studies and political economy, and the university has put all researchers who identify with this field, or who at some time might have published in CMS, at risk of redundancy. Among the numerous responses circulating on Twitter, nearly all point to the fact that the critical orientation made Leicester Business School distinctive and attractive to scholars wishing to study and teach there. Among those threatened with redundancy is the distinguished former dean, Professor Gibson Burrell. The sheer volume of protest at this anomaly must be an embarrassment to Leicester management. We should remember that academic freedom means that, as a scholar of proven expertise, you have the freedom to teach and research according to your own judgement. When those in a field critical of structures of power have their academic freedom removed, this is, unarguably, a breach of that expectation. Such a violation should be of concern to the new freedom of speech champion and to the regulator, the Office for Students. 

If the devastation in the School of Business were not enough humiliation for Leicester, in the department of English, there are plans to cancel scholarship and teaching in Medieval and Early Modern literature. The thoughtless stripping out of key areas that give context and coherence within a subject is not unique to Leicester – similar moves have taken place in English at University of Portsmouth.  At Leicester, management have offered the justification that this realignment will allow them to put resources towards the study of gender and sexuality. After all, the Vice Chancellor, Nishan Canagarajah, offered the keynote speech at the Advance HE conference in Equality, Diversity and Inclusion on 19th March  and has signalled that he supports decolonising the curriculum. This might have had more credibility if he was not equally committed to extinguishing critical scholarship in the Business School. The two positions are incompatible and reveal an opportunistic attempt to reduce costs and remove signs of critical scholarship which might attract government disapproval. 

At the University of Birmingham, the response to the difficulties of maintaining teaching during the pandemic has been to issue a ruling that three academic staff must be able to teach each module. The explanation for this apparent reversal of the ‘lean’ principle of staffing efficiency, is to make modules more resilient in the face of challenges like the pandemic – or perhaps strike action. There is a consequence for academic freedom though – only the most familiar, established courses can be taught. Courses that might have been offered, which arise from the current research of the academic staff, will have to be cancelled if the material is not already familiar to other colleagues in the department. It is a way of designing innovation and advancement out of courses at the University of Birmingham. 

Still at Birmingham, UCU is contesting a proposal for a new ‘career framework’ by management characterised as ‘up or out’. It will require newly appointed lecturers to achieve promotion to senior lecturer within five years or face the sort of performance management procedures that could lead to termination of their appointment. The junior academics who enter on these conditions are unlikely to gamble their careers on academic risk-taking or pursue a challenge to an established paradigm. We can only speculate how this apprenticeship in organisational obedience might restrain the pursuit of discovery, let alone achieve the management’s stated aim to “develop and maintain an academic culture of intellectual stimulation and high achievement”. 

Meanwhile at the University of Liverpool, Vice Chancellor Janet Beer is attempting to apply research metrics and measures of research income over a five-year period to select academics for redundancy in the Faculty of Life Sciences. Staff have been threatened with sacking and replacement by those felt to hold more promise. It will be an unwise scholar who chooses a niche field of research which will not elicit prime citations. Astoundingly, university mangers claim that their criteria are not in breach of their status as a signatory to the San Fransisco Declaration on Research Assessment. That is correct insofar as selection for redundancy by grant income is clearly such dishonorable practice as to have been placed beyond contemplation by the international board of DORA.

It seems we are reaching a pivotal moment for academic freedom for higher education systems across the world. In Arkansas and some other states in the USA, there are efforts to prohibit the teaching of social justice.

In France, the education minister has blamed American critical race theory for undermining France’s self-professed race-blindness and for causing the rise of “islamo-gauchisme”, a term which has been cynically deployed to blunt any critique of structural racism.

In Greece, universities are now bound by law to ensure policing and surveillance of university campuses by ‘squads for the protection of universities’ in order to suppress dissent with the Orwellian announcement that the creation of these squads and the extensive surveillance of public Universities are “a means of closing the door to violence and opening the way to freedom” and an assertion that “it is not the police who enter universities, but democracy”.

Conclusion

It occurs to me that those public figures who feel deprived of a platform to express controversial views may well be outnumbered by the scholars whose universities allow their work to be suppressed by targeted intellectual purges, academic totalitarianism and metric surveillance. It is telling that assaults on academic freedom in the UK have not attracted comment or action from the organisations which might be well placed to defend this defining and essential principle of universities. I hereby call on Universities UK, the Office for Students and the freedom of speech champion to insist on an independent audit of academic freedom and autonomy for each higher education institution. 

We now know where intervention into the rights of academics to teach and research autonomously may lead. We also know that many of the candidates targeted for redundancy are UCU trade union officials; this has happened at University of East London and the University of Hull. Make no mistake, this is a PATCO moment for higher education in the UK as management teams try to break union support and solidarity in order to exact greater control in the future.   

Universities are the canary down the mine in an era of right-wing authoritarianism. We must ensure that they can maintain their unique responsibility to protect against the rise of populism and the dismantling of democracy. We must be assertive in protecting the rights of academics whose lawful and reasoned opinions are increasingly subject to some very sinister threats. Academic freedom needs to be fought for, just like the right to protest and the right to roam. That leaves a heavy responsibility for academics if the abolition of autonomy and academic freedom is not to be complete. 

Read more from Liz Morrish on her blog, Academic Irregularities.

Further resources: Zoom conference on the Leicester Business School redundancies and academic freedom – chaired by Martin Parker.