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To protect academic freedom from external ‘threats’, we must reverse the decline of academic participation in governance

  • 29 March 2021
  • By John Heathershaw

This blog is an edited transcript of a speech delivered by Professor John Heathershaw, University of Exeter to the University of Buckingham’s Conference on Academic Freedom in March. You can find John on Twitter @HeathershawJ and the working group @AcFreeWorldUK.

How does the internationalisation of higher education affect academic freedom? This is a difficult question, both because there is much we do not know, and because the concept of academic freedom is poorly understood.

I am part of the Academic Freedom and Internationalisation Working Group, which is composed of academics and supported by civil society representatives and the All-Party Parliamentary Human Rights Group and seeks to advance our understanding of these risks and put forward practical solutions. Our group members have conducted research which has found that UK universities are involved in international relationships with autocracies where academic freedom is put at risk, both at home and abroad.

There are four central ways academic freedom is put at risk by internationalisation.

  1. Academic freedom is at risk in international partnerships, both in transnational education and research. For example, academics who work at UK overseas campuses in UAE, China and other authoritarian states frequently report censorship and education which is technocratic rather than promoting critical thinking. I personally know many cases of local academics in Central Asia being censored, harassed or imprisoned due to their participation in UK-led projects.
  2. Academic freedom is at risk in fieldwork abroad. The well-known cases of Matthew Hedges, Giulio Regeni and others demonstrate the real risks to UK researchers. But far more common is self-censorship, a topic deftly covered by Professor Kerry Brown in the HEPI collection, UK Universities and China. In a survey of 1,500 social scientists we conducted in 2020, 15% reported that they self-censor their fieldwork findings – and this figure is much higher for certain regions of Area Studies.   
  3. Academic freedom is at-risk for expatriate faculty and students in the UK. Our research has found evidence of the surveillance of students from Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan and China and expat academics in the UK admitting that their research is constrained due to the threat of retaliation.
  4. Academic freedom is at risk from donations and other overseas funding. In contrast to the US, there is a complete lack of transparency in the UK. Most of what we know are from scandals that have erupted – such as LSE / Gaddafi case – and from Freedom of Information requests. For example, there was a 100-fold increase in donations from the Middle East to the University of Oxford from 2001 to 2014. The question is: to what end?

These findings are indisputable but agreement on causes and solutions is a different matter. Our perspective is that we must focus on a set of solutions which are focused on governance and which find widespread support across the academic community. Without such support, solutions will not work.

But before I introduce the solutions proposed by the Working Group we must consider three non-solutions and distractions which must be avoided.

First, we must avoid the category error of conflating Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom. Despite claiming otherwise, the recent Department for Education (DfE) paper does this throughout – and in 59 specific instances. But Freedom of Speech is a general right, and academic freedom is a professional right. They are related but have different sources.

Academic freedom is freedom to teach and research – not merely a freedom from interference. Such positive academic freedom – as elaborated in the 1997 UNESCO recommendations – requires security of employment, the time to research and stable funding for research and the ability to participate in governance. However, my university, the University of Exeter, omits these key elements from its 2009 agreement on academic freedom.

Sometimes academic freedom and freedom of speech are in conflict. On the one hand, academic freedom includes the right to determine essential readings on a topic for one’s students (say, on the Uyghurs). On the other hand, as a matter of freedom of speech, a student may insist that they disregard this literature and engage entirely different sources (say, exclusively pro-Beijing sources). They may do so, but they will be marked down on academic grounds.

Second, we must avoid the delusion of decoupling. The academy is essentially international while many of the problems associated with academic freedom are domestic. Jo Johnson’s recent report, The China question: managing risks and maximising benefits from partnership in higher education and research, rightly opposed decoupling from China, but lacked details of the alternatives.

There must be some limits on the sources of funding. In our survey, 75% of respondents agreed that universities should not accept donations from foreign entities of governments which do not respect human rights.

Third, the top-down strategy of imposing new and controversial rules from above is also a non-solution. As a recent survey has shown, the Prevent Duty is barely implemented in universities for this reason. Many academics considered the new Duty incompatible with their other responsibilities including those of academic freedom.

While some new legislation may be required, there is a high risk of the measures suggested in the DfE paper leading to increases in managerialism and a further weakening of academic freedom. It is this managerialism and the ‘beggar thy neighbour’ dynamics of the global marketplace that undermines academic freedom in the context of internationalisation.

So we must put aside the culture wars beloved by both political Right and Left. Academic freedom is measured best not by ensuring political balance, but by ensuring freedom for viewpoint diversity within a discipline and the exercise of those standpoints in university governance. As such, we may improve academic freedom by reversing managerialism, casualisation and the decline in academic governance of UK universities.

Towards that end, the solution favoured by the Working Group is bottom-up. It is found in our draft model code of conduct which was published in October 2020 and is now open to feedback. It is a common set of standards developed by an expert group of academics working on different regions of the world.

The code states that academics working on a region must take part in decision making regarding partnership with that region.

The code recommends training for staff and students in academic freedom and support for at-risk persons in the UK and overseas through organisations like the Council for At-Risk Academics.

For extreme cases, the code requires systems of reporting and investigating to a designated person and beyond the university to a genuinely independent ombudsperson, not to a free speech champion.

Current DfE proposals are to transfer investigatory powers on academic freedom violations from the Office of the Independent Adjudicator to the Office for Students, a body the government seems intent on politicising. This is a mistake.

Our code also demands transparency in the publication of donors and donations (improving on the model of the USA), memoranda of understanding for all international partnerships and the reporting of anonymised and confirmed cases of the violation of academic freedom in annual reports and a public meeting.

When we asked academics in our survey, 60% said they favoured such a code of conduct while a further 30% said maybe, and just 2.5% were opposed. I would wager that support for the DfE proposals is much lower.

The code is a draft and a model as it will be revised under genuine consultation before, we hope, being debated and adopted on campuses across the country.

Without such a bottom-up approach, alongside limited new statutory powers and a genuinely independent ombudsperson, any action in this area will be ineffective.

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