Whatever Happened to Academic Freedom?

Paul Greatrix, writing on the Wonkhe blog on July 14th 2015, includes an account of how, as recently as the 1980s in the UK, autonomy, academic freedom and academic standards were thought to be inextricably linked.

In the blog piece, he quotes two key higher education reports: on efficiency (The Jarratt Report 1985), and on degree validation (The Lindop Report 1985). Both contain appeals to academic freedom.

  • “The most reliable safeguard of standards is not external validation or any other outside control; it is the growth of the teaching institution as a self-critical academic community’. (The Lindop Report 1985, p6)
  • “Academic excellence is crucially dependent on academic freedom” (Jarratt Report 1985, p6).

Academic freedom, then, is an issue of academic standards. What has changed, in the 30-year interim, except the infiltration of neoliberalism and managerialism? Why does each new report on governance, standards and ‘quality’ in higher education overlook this essential element? Harvey writes that democracy is viewed as a luxury, only to be afforded under optimum conditions of affluence – and for ideological reasons this is prevented in public services which must be kept ‘efficient’. “Neoliberals therefore tend to favour governance by experts and elites” (2005:66).

On July 6th 2015, a letter to The Guardian, signed by over 100 UK academics, spelled out the consequences of this toxic working environment for academics: “This deprofessionalisation and micro-management of academics is relentlessly eroding their ability to teach and conduct research effectively and appropriately. A compliant, demoralised and deprofessionalised workforce is necessarily underproductive, and cannot innovate.” This belies notions of efficiency, performance, outputs and change management so relentlessly advocated by university managers.

Thomas Docherty (2014), who sharpened his critique during the months of his suspension from Warwick, writes: ‘We are perilously close to a position where the unquestioned power of management is declaring war on the academic community, the university, itself; civil war in academia’.

Perhaps, then, if we can find a way to persuade managers to be critical, we may go some way to returning academic freedom to its rightful place in the academy.

August 3rd 2015 and one lone vice-chancellor raises the flag for academic freedom in the Times Higher. “Great teaching is not inconsistent with academic freedom, it depends upon it. It demands the unshackled possibility to question and seek knowledge wherever it is to be found, and to convey this to students without fear of intervention or sanction by the state. A value that is globally understood to be a prerequisite for scholarship”.

Hooray.

Reference

Harvey, David. 2005. A Brief history of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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