The new Chief Inquisitor on campus
From ethics committees to learning outcomes,
the threat to academic freedom comes from within the university
as much as from without.
Academic freedom - which endows members of the university with
the right to hold, express and teach any views they deem fit, and
to research and publish their findings without restraint - is widely
recognised as essential to the pursuit of knowledge.
As a 1998 report by UNESCO observed, academic freedom is 'not simply
a fundamental value', but also 'a means by which higher education
fulfilled its mission'. Even those politicians, bureaucrats and
administrators who are, by temperament, hostile to academic freedom
feel compelled to defend it.
In order to flourish, university life needs individual risk takers
- people who are ahead of their time and prepared to search for
the truth, wherever it may lead and whomever it may offend. Intellectual
and scientific breakthroughs inevitably challenge the prevailing
order, which is why those who make them frequently face repression
and the attention of the censor.
Since the nineteenth century, the ideals of university autonomy
and the liberty of those involved in higher learning to teach, research
and express their views have been formally upheld in many societies.
In some countries - Austria, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Spain, Sweden
- academic freedom is affirmed by the constitution. This should
not be seen as some eccentric, outdated right. Everyone benefits
from the exercise of this freedom; it helps promote the development
of science and knowledge, which benefits the whole of society.
Sadly, contemporary academia takes academic freedom for granted,
and treats it as no big deal. Some seem to view it as a redundant
privilege, not worth making a fuss about. One reason why academic
freedom is not taken so seriously today is because attacks on it
are rarely formulated in explicit and self-conscious terms. Although
individual politicians sometimes criticise an individual lecturer,
governments rarely attack academic freedoms as such. And yet, a
closer examination of the workings of higher education suggests
that academic freedom is threatened from both within and outside
Watch your words
Paradoxically, direct attacks on academic freedom often come from
within the university. There is a mood of intolerance towards those
who hold unconventional, unpopular opinions, especially in the area
of politics. Some academics do not simply challenge views that they
dislike; they often seek to ban them and to prevent individuals
who advocate them from working or speaking on their campus.
Traditionally academics, particularly social scientists, were at
the forefront of defending free speech. Today, some academics actually
attempt to deny their colleagues the right to free speech. The campaign
to ban Tom Paulin from speaking at Harvard for being anti-Semitic,
and the censoring of Israeli academics by the editor of an academic
journal in Manchester on the grounds that they are Israeli, are
testimony to the illiberal tendencies that prevail in academia.
Academic freedom has become negotiable. Consequently, only the more
grotesque attacks on this freedom tend to provoke a reaction on
campus. One such example is the recent revelation of a memo issued
to colleagues in arts and humanities at Durham University, which
said lecturers would have to obtain approval from an 'ethics' committee
if they wanted to give lectures and tutorials on subjects that might
offend students - including abortion or euthanasia.
This illiberal policy is not simply the handiwork of few philistine
zealots. It is the inexorable consequence of an academic culture
that is increasingly prepared to censor itself and others. That
Durham assigned an ethics committee the role of Chief Inquisitor
and Censor is not surprising: for some time now, such committees
have made pronouncements on which kind of research is ethical and
which is not. Extending the role of these committees from policing
research to censoring academics' views was a logical next step.
Academics who treat ethics committees with derision, as a minor
nuisance, should realise the extent to which their freedom is under
The Durham memo may have stated its case rather bluntly. But its
premise - that words that offend students should be banned - is
now widely accepted and institutionalised in British higher education.
Virtually every British university has adopted rules of conduct
or codes of practice that convey the message: 'the student must
not be offended.'
To take a random example: the University of Derby's 'Code of Practice
For Use of Language'. In an Orwellian tone, the code announces that
'the use of language should reflect the university's mission and
support relationships of mutual respect'. It demands that staff
and students 'try to be sensitive to the feelings of others in the
use of language'. In case academics fail to get the message and
mistakenly think that being 'sensitive' is a question of individual
preference rather than a mandatory form of behaviour, the code warns
that the 'university recognises that individuals are responsible
for their own use of language but expects line managers to help
staff carry out the terms of this policy'. This is unlikely to create
a climate where the free exchange of opinion can flourish.
That academics are expected to work within such a code, which explicitly
demands that the pursuit of knowledge and expression of ideas should
be restrained by the need to spare the feelings of others, is a
symptom of our times. Such censorious speech codes have been institutionalised
through the UK, without any serious opposition from staff or students.
Once upon a time, instructions on the use of language were for schoolkids;
today they are aimed at restraining the speech of the academic.
Of course words can offend. But one of the roles of a university
is to challenge conventional truths - and that means academics questioning
the sacred and mentioning the unmentionable. A proper university
teaches its members how not to take hateful views personally, and
how not to be offended by uncomfortable ideas. It also teaches its
members how to deal with being offended. And it never turns to the
Inquisitor or the Censor for the answer.
The indirect attacks on academic freedom
One important point made in the 1998 UNESCO report Autonomy, Social
Responsibility and Academic Freedom is that universities have become
subject to 'increasing scrutiny in the name of the public'. One
possible consequence of this increased scrutiny is the erosion of
the kind of institutional autonomy that underpins academic freedom.
As the report noted, 'the danger is very real that the specificity
of the university's moral and civic missions become weakened' by
the imperative of auditing.
The expansion of the auditing ethos encourages a climate where academic
freedom is compromised by the spread of bureaucratic rule-making.
The standardisation of evaluation procedures, benchmarking, auditing
and quality assurance procedures all compel academics to act according
to an externally imposed script. Yet academics have barely raised
a murmur about the introduction of such processes, which undermine
the free pursuit of knowledge.
Today, lecturers need to ensure that their teaching is consistent
with bureaucratically devised 'learning outcomes'. One young academic
was recently asked in an interview for a sociology post how his
work fitted in with his potential employer's mission statement.
'Fitting in' with rules and procedures - it seems that conforming
to the imagination of the bureaucrats is the freedom offered to
In many ways, the erosion of academic freedom through quality assurance
procedures or benchmarking is more insidious than the overt crusade
against offensive speech, as exemplified by the Durham memo. Such
procedures foster a climate of conformism where the freedom to express
one's views and teach what one sees fit is quietly bartered away
in exchange for a quiet life. The standardisation and commodification
of education restrict what an academic can and cannot do. It is
a prelude to a time when the practice vetting your lecture and research
will be stamped with the label of Best Practice.
published on spiked, 16 February 2005