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Putting academic freedom on a solid footing

  • 12 July 2021
  • By Dean Machin

This blog was kindly contributed by Dean Machin, Head of Policy at the University of Portsmouth, who writes here in a personal capacity.

Today the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill comes to the House of Commons. The sector seems split on its significance. Is it an attempt to trigger cultural battles and weaken academic independence or a misdirection from the Skills Bill and upcoming spending review? The Freedom of Speech Bill clearly is significant. However, if it passes in its current form a very significant opportunity will be lost. To protect academic freedom better the Bill needs two significant amendments.

The Bill covers both freedom of speech and academic freedom but you can be forgiven for thinking that, for some, there is no difference between the two and that academic freedom is just academics’ freedom of speech. This is nonsense. We all have freedom of speech rights but only a privileged few have academic freedom and this freedom only extends to academics’ area of expertise. There is no academic freedom defence for a physicist’s musings on race relations or a logician’s on Brexit.

Academic freedom is vital to a successful university sector as well as to a decent, well-functioning democracy. As it stands, though, the Bill will make inadequate changes to academic freedom protections. The Bill will enhance academics’ protections from sanctions by their employer but it makes no reference to other sources of threats to academic freedom. Governments (domestic or foreign), funders, philanthropic donors, or just very important stakeholders can be uncomfortable with what academics are entitled to say. For example, recently, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport said of government appointees to public bodies:

Guidance for the non-executive directors of public bodies makes it clear that they should act to deliver the outcomes expected by sponsor departments, ministers and ultimately the public.

If any ‘outcomes’ fall within the field of expertise of an academic non-executive director they should be able to say whatever their expertise entitles them to say without fear of losing their post or not being re-appointed. The first amendment the Bill requires, then, is this: the Bill should extend the protection of academic freedom to threats from any source. The Bill should also ensure that the ultimate source of any threat is sanctioned, and not just any university employer that might be caught, say, between government pressure and protecting its academics.

The Government might be unlikely to widen legislative protections to academics, some of whom seem to be its most dismissive critics. But the Government does understand the long-term societal benefits of academic freedom. There is also a good argument for a second amendment to the Bill that is in the long-term interests of the sector and country, and that could provide reassurance to the Government that academics won’t misuse any stronger protections.

As it stands, the Bill will protect academics ‘within their field of expertise’ but the Bill gives no criteria to determine the scope and limits of a ‘field of expertise’. This is an important issue. When an academic speaks on any issue outside their field of expertise their views have no greater command on our attention than newspaper commentary, pub talk or late night heckling in a comedy club.

If academic freedom is to be defended, and if academics’ views are to command the widespread public respect we all need, it is important that academics do not claim a privileged right to comment where they have none. When ‘Professor X Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts’ writes to The Times denying climate change it is absolutely vital that she is clear whether climate science is within her field of expertise. And when Professor Y critiques the Government’s foreign policy we need to know whether this is his specialism.

This issue is significant. I speculate that one reason Michael Gove’s comment that the country has had ‘enough of experts‘ resonated is that some academics have not taken sufficient care to ensure their publicly-articulated views remain within their field of expertise.

No doubt people will disagree that this happens. But there can be no disagreement about its significance if it happens. Should the wider public come to believe that academics’ public contributions are no different from commentators’ opinion pieces or what-I-think-about-stuff, the widespread respect for academics and universities will be weakened. This is not in the sector’s interest and it is not in society’s long-term interest either.

There is the seemingly fraught issue of defining ‘fields of expertise’ but universities solve this problem every time they recruit someone, promote them, or include them in the Research Excellence Framework. It is hardly insurmountable. There are difficult cases. Is a professor of law expert on those subjects she teaches, or only on those on which she has peer-reviewed published articles? But there are always difficult cases.

It is probably unwise for any government to define unilaterally the scope and limits of academic freedom, particularly as one of the central purposes of academic freedom is to act as a check on government decisions and policies. Still, with a second amendment, the Bill could do a great service to the university sector and the long-term health of the country. Universities should be required to establish their own reasonable criteria for the scope and limits of academic freedom and so what falls within academics’ ‘fields of expertise’. These criteria should be published, well-understood by staff, and used to defend academics when questions or problems arise.

I have proposed two amendments to the Freedom of Speech Bill that today starts is journey through parliament.

  1. Academics should receive legislative protection from threats to academic freedom whatever the source of the threat (not just university employers). All sources of threats to academic freedom should be sanctioned – whether they are governments, sponsors, donors or, indeed, other academics.
  2. Universities should be required to have their own reasonable criteria of the scope and limits of academic freedom, and so what falls within academics’ ‘fields of expertise’. These criteria should be published and well-understood by staff.

These two amendments would support public confidence in academics’ public contributions and weaken cynicism about the sector. They would also make attempts to threaten academic freedom far harder. Both would deliver long-term and far-reaching benefits for universities and society. Let’s hope the Bill emerges into law with their inclusion.

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1 comment

  1. Kevin Kingsbury says:

    Dear Sir/Madam,
    I would like to raise the uncomfortable question of whether academia is worth protecting, or even saving, in its current form.
    With regard to academic freedom, the author states: ‘if academics’ views are to command the widespread public respect we all need’. Quite understandably, we all want to feel wanted, needed and respected. But wouldn’t it be a good start, if not a prerequisite, to provide something wanted, needed and respected? Should academia assume it does? What widespread public reaction should be anticipated to undergraduate institutions providing safe spaces where the perspectives cannot be challenged, where expression of a different opinion is deemed an act of violence.
    The author also raises the issue of academic freedom protection within a field of expertise. The example given of an RCA professor ‘denying climate change’ is surely a slam dunk within many academic circles. However, the wider public remembers the academic dishonesty (fraud?) perpetrated by the Climate Science school at the University of East Anglia – isn’t the ‘slam dunk’ another example of academia forgetting the importance of truth, believing the public has the memory of a gold fish, and then seeking ‘widespread public respect’ from said goldfish.
    I sincerely hope academia navigates its way to a respect for truth – perhaps unlikely with leftists en masse replacing truth with doctrine and sending indebted students out into a world with limited job opportunities and blurred vision, unable to distinguish between their expensive Marxist indoctrination and truth – an unfortunate condition that further reduces employment opportunity.
    Will academia re orientate towards reason, evidence and objectivity? I hope so, and wish you well. But if not don’t be surprised if ‘widespread public respect’ proves illusive.
    Kevin Kingsbury

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