Academic Freedom

The Council for the Defence of British Universities has been concerned for some time about growing challenges to academic freedom that academics face in the process of teaching, conducting research, and speaking publicly about their work. Our Position Paper on Academic Freedom as a Public Good sets out the principles to which we adhere in our defence of academic freedom and our Model Academic Freedom Ordinance offers a template to colleagues in institutions across the UK who may want to persuade their own HEIs to adopt a framework which, in clearly defining academic freedom may thereby best protect itThese are the parameters which underpin our own advocacy on behalf of UK universities and academics to bodies such as the Office for Students (OfS), UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), Universities UK (UUK), and sometimes, the senior managers of individual HEIs.

Attempts to limit the exercise of academic freedom may derive, at home and abroad, from repressive government practices or from coercive agents such as lobby groups or private-sector funding organisations. Such practices might include, in the UK, attempts to silence academics through Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs); pressure on individuals to change the nature or emphasis of their research; the lodging of public and unevidenced reputational attacks on individuals; prosecution; dismissals; censorship; or travel restrictions. At the institutional level, universities have been forced to endorse non-legally binding definitions under threat. And all too often, appeals to academic freedom can be partisan, lodged in defence of a particular viewpoint rather than anchored in a clear understanding of a set of principles that set out the parameters for freedom to teach, research and speak.  

In the UK, certain aspects of the higher education environment aggravate both direct and more subtle challenges to academic freedom. CDBU is particularly concerned at the way the erosion of academic freedom is intensified by aspects of marketisation such as a consumerist approach to student learning and institutional reputation management, and an opportunistic approach to building global ties within the higher education sector. New funding streams, similarly, can make universities vulnerable to interference by donors and foreign governments. The commitment to academic freedom, and the self-governance and institutional autonomy that uphold it, may also be diminished by changes in university governing bodies: council memberships today include a far greater proportion than once they did of non-academics, who may not yet fully understand the nature of academic freedom, nor recognise the benefits it brings to democracies and the public good. 

Universities and the administrations that sustain them are not identical entities: our universities transcend our own time. We are, collectively, the caretakers of these institutions. CDBU invites any academic or university administrator who wishes to work with us to maintain our institutions as centres of free discovery and open inquiry to get in touch with us. 



From the CDBU blog – 

 Position paper and model ordinance –