Category Archives: conditions of labour

Academic freedom is in crisis; free speech is not

This post was first published on the CDBU blog on April 6th 2021.

In August 2020, the UK think tank The Policy Exchange produced a report on Academic Freedom in the UK, alleging a chilling effect for staff and students expressing conservative opinions, particularly pro-Brexit or ‘gender critical’ ideas. This is an issue that was examined by a 2018 parliamentary committee on Human Rights which found a lack of evidence for serious infringements of free speech. In a university context, freedom of speech is protected under the Human Rights Act 1998 as long as the speech is lawful and does not contravene other university regulations on issues like harassment, bullying or inclusion. Some of these controversies have been firmly rebutted by Chris Parr and others who describe how the incidents have been over-hyped. 

Despite this, the government seems keen to appoint a free speech champion for universities which continues a campaign started by Sam Gyimah when he was minister for universities in 2018, and has been interpreted by some commentators as a ‘war on woke’. In the current climate of threats to university autonomy, many vice chancellors wonder whether this might be followed by heavy fines or reduced funding for those institutions deemed to fall on the wrong side of the culture wars.

While public concern has been directed to an imagined crisis of free speech, there are more significant questions to answer on the separate but related issue of academic freedom. Most university statutes echo legislation and guarantee academics ‘freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial and unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institutions.’ [Section 202 of the Education Reform Act 1988]. In reality, these freedoms are surrendered to the greater claims of academic capitalism, government policy, legislation, managers’ responses to the pandemic and more dirigiste approaches to academics’ work. 

Nevertheless, this government is ploughing ahead with policies designed to protect the freedom of speech that is already protected, while doing little to hold university managers to account for their very demonstrable violations of academic freedom. The government is suspicious of courses which declare a sympathy with social justice or which manifest a ‘progressive’ approach. This hostility also extends to critical race theory and black studies. Indeed, the New York Times has identified a right wing ‘Campaign to Cancel Wokeness’  on both sides of the Atlantic, citing a speech by the UK Equalities Minister, Kemi Badenoch, in which she said,  “We do not want teachers to teach their white pupils about white privilege and inherited racial guilt…Any school which teaches these elements of critical race theory, or which promotes partisan political views such as defunding the police without offering a balanced treatment of opposing views, is breaking the law.” 

This has now set a tone for ideological oversight which some university leaders seem keen to embrace. Universities will always wish to review their offerings to ensure they reflect academic currency and student choice. However, operating under the cover of emergency pandemic planning, some are now seeking to dismantle what they see as politically troublesome subject areas.

Let’s start with the most egregious and transparent attack on academic freedom. The University of Leicester Business School, known primarily for its disdain of management orthodoxy, has announced it will no longer support research in critical management studies and political economy, and the university has put all researchers who identify with this field, or who at some time might have published in CMS, at risk of redundancy. Among the numerous responses circulating on Twitter, nearly all point to the fact that the critical orientation made Leicester Business School distinctive and attractive to scholars wishing to study and teach there. Among those threatened with redundancy is the distinguished former dean, Professor Gibson Burrell. The sheer volume of protest at this anomaly must be an embarrassment to Leicester management. We should remember that academic freedom means that, as a scholar of proven expertise, you have the freedom to teach and research according to your own judgement. When those in a field critical of structures of power have their academic freedom removed, this is, unarguably, a breach of that expectation. Such a violation should be of concern to the new freedom of speech champion and to the regulator, the Office for Students. 

If the devastation in the School of Business were not enough humiliation for Leicester, in the department of English, there are plans to cancel scholarship and teaching in Medieval and Early Modern literature. The thoughtless stripping out of key areas that give context and coherence within a subject is not unique to Leicester – similar moves have taken place in English at University of Portsmouth.  At Leicester, management have offered the justification that this realignment will allow them to put resources towards the study of gender and sexuality. After all, the Vice Chancellor, Nishan Canagarajah, offered the keynote speech at the Advance HE conference in Equality, Diversity and Inclusion on 19th March  and has signalled that he supports decolonising the curriculum. This might have had more credibility if he was not equally committed to extinguishing critical scholarship in the Business School. The two positions are incompatible and reveal an opportunistic attempt to reduce costs and remove signs of critical scholarship which might attract government disapproval. 

At the University of Birmingham, the response to the difficulties of maintaining teaching during the pandemic has been to issue a ruling that three academic staff must be able to teach each module. The explanation for this apparent reversal of the ‘lean’ principle of staffing efficiency, is to make modules more resilient in the face of challenges like the pandemic – or perhaps strike action. There is a consequence for academic freedom though – only the most familiar, established courses can be taught. Courses that might have been offered, which arise from the current research of the academic staff, will have to be cancelled if the material is not already familiar to other colleagues in the department. It is a way of designing innovation and advancement out of courses at the University of Birmingham. 

Still at Birmingham, UCU is contesting a proposal for a new ‘career framework’ by management characterised as ‘up or out’. It will require newly appointed lecturers to achieve promotion to senior lecturer within five years or face the sort of performance management procedures that could lead to termination of their appointment. The junior academics who enter on these conditions are unlikely to gamble their careers on academic risk-taking or pursue a challenge to an established paradigm. We can only speculate how this apprenticeship in organisational obedience might restrain the pursuit of discovery, let alone achieve the management’s stated aim to “develop and maintain an academic culture of intellectual stimulation and high achievement”. 

Meanwhile at the University of Liverpool, Vice Chancellor Janet Beer is attempting to apply research metrics and measures of research income over a five-year period to select academics for redundancy in the Faculty of Life Sciences. Staff have been threatened with sacking and replacement by those felt to hold more promise. It will be an unwise scholar who chooses a niche field of research which will not elicit prime citations. Astoundingly, university mangers claim that their criteria are not in breach of their status as a signatory to the San Fransisco Declaration on Research Assessment. That is correct insofar as selection for redundancy by grant income is clearly such dishonorable practice as to have been placed beyond contemplation by the international board of DORA.

It seems we are reaching a pivotal moment for academic freedom for higher education systems across the world. In Arkansas and some other states in the USA, there are efforts to prohibit the teaching of social justice.

In France, the education minister has blamed American critical race theory for undermining France’s self-professed race-blindness and for causing the rise of “islamo-gauchisme”, a term which has been cynically deployed to blunt any critique of structural racism.

In Greece, universities are now bound by law to ensure policing and surveillance of university campuses by ‘squads for the protection of universities’ in order to suppress dissent with the Orwellian announcement that the creation of these squads and the extensive surveillance of public Universities are “a means of closing the door to violence and opening the way to freedom” and an assertion that “it is not the police who enter universities, but democracy”.

Conclusion

It occurs to me that those public figures who feel deprived of a platform to express controversial views may well be outnumbered by the scholars whose universities allow their work to be suppressed by targeted intellectual purges, academic totalitarianism and metric surveillance. It is telling that assaults on academic freedom in the UK have not attracted comment or action from the organisations which might be well placed to defend this defining and essential principle of universities. I hereby call on Universities UK, the Office for Students and the freedom of speech champion to insist on an independent audit of academic freedom and autonomy for each higher education institution. 

We now know where intervention into the rights of academics to teach and research autonomously may lead. We also know that many of the candidates targeted for redundancy are UCU trade union officials; this has happened at University of East London and the University of Hull. Make no mistake, this is a PATCO moment for higher education in the UK as management teams try to break union support and solidarity in order to exact greater control in the future.   

Universities are the canary down the mine in an era of right-wing authoritarianism. We must ensure that they can maintain their unique responsibility to protect against the rise of populism and the dismantling of democracy. We must be assertive in protecting the rights of academics whose lawful and reasoned opinions are increasingly subject to some very sinister threats. Academic freedom needs to be fought for, just like the right to protest and the right to roam. That leaves a heavy responsibility for academics if the abolition of autonomy and academic freedom is not to be complete. 

More details of the planned redundancies at the University of Leicester:

Zoom conference on the Leicester Business School redundancies and academic freedom – chaired by Prof. Martin Parker.

Prof. Andrew Timming interviews Prof. Martin Parker on ‘What the hell is going on at Leicester University?’

Nobody is redundant

Along with everybody else concerned about higher education, I have been immersed in debates about the future of universities after Covid. I recommend the Post-Pandemic University’s blog and series of online conferences . We discuss how face-to-face and online learning will coexist. How different are the underlying pedagogies for each modality? Scholars describe the huge increase in workload that multi-mode and multi-platform teaching has generated and worry this will further exhaust their mental health and energy.

Amidst this crisis, university managers are contemplating a financial shortfall arising from missing accommodation revenues, costs of increased biosecurity measures and, in some cases, fear of declining student headcount. Among the cost-cutting measures currently being imposed are the non-renewal of short-term contracts, curtailing of research leave, and most controversial in the context of a pandemic recession, compulsory redundancies.

So here are some thoughts on the post-pandemic landscape of universities and their campuses which occurred to me after I received unexpected but welcome messages from a couple of former students in the last few weeks.

James who graduated in the early 2000s got in touch to ask “Are you watching It’s A Sin? It made me realise that the first time I learnt about ‘gay history’ was at university. In your class and in another module called ‘representing aids’ – I can’t remember the tutors name? Anyhow it was the first step into a world where suddenly everything started to make sense – I’d never been so connected to learning. It’s a sin reminded me of sitting in your office and telling you I was gay after your class – and feeling safe. Will never forget that moment. Thanks 🙂 x’.

Mike who also graduated in the early 2000s messaged to say ‘I now look back on my time at NTU with fondness. You stand out as a hugely positive influence on me thanks to your open and engaging teaching style and your natural pastoral approach to conversations on numerous topics which certainly helped to broaden my view of the world and influenced my liberal political stance. So thank you again for the part you played in opening the mind of a somewhat fucked-up young man from a Yorkshire mining town!’.

While these affirmations might confirm all the suspicions Sam Gyimah and other Tory ministers hold about apparently left-wing lecturers, there is a more important message. It is about shared, interactive learning. Learning in a community. Learning and memory. Learning in place. Learning in a place. And most importantly, learning is personal in a very different way from the concept of ‘personalisation’ which is sold by the ed-tech industry and endorsed by vice chancellors and deans across the HE sector.

I have had a few emails from students over the years, reminiscing about course content which has been transformed from the abstraction of a university seminar to becoming personal and immanent. No former student has ever thanked me for raising their income or increasing their return on investment. And yet, this seems to be high among the concerns of the department of education. The OECD has produced a report which attempts to monetise what they see as each year of missed learning for children and university students and the presumed concomitant loss in knowledge and skills.

There are two related streams of long-run economic costs that are central to this discussion. First, affected students whose schooling has been interrupted by the pandemic face long-term losses in income. Second, national economies that go forward with a less skilled labour force face lower economic growth which subtracts from the overall welfare of society.

[Eric A. Hanushek, Ludger Woessmann 2020. The economic impacts of learning losses. OECD Education Working Papers No. 225]

On Twitter, Ben Williamson, a critic of ed-tech, has been resisting the analysis that less learning = less human capital = weaker productivity, and points out that ‘economization of education is nothing new. Education has been positioned as integral to economic development for years. States compare and compete over education. So “learning loss” is just a new anxiety of a much longer trend to instrumentalize education.’ And he goes on to warn how ed-tech companies are waiting in the wings to provide the ‘digital transformation’ solutions to enable students to catch up.

In February 2021 Ben Williamson and Anna Hogan wrote a report for Education International in which they recognise that a large amount of venture capital is flowing into ed-tech in response to a much more prominent role for data-driven decision making in higher education. Together with the perennial promise of ‘personalised’ educational content, their report predicts a future of ‘unbundled’ courses, and an accelerated process of marginalisation or ‘pausing’ of activities which do not satisfy the monetised criteria for their continuation. It is important to remember that much of this personalisation depends on the collection and use of large amounts of student data which students are obliged to surrender just as a consequence of logging on to the university VLE.

There are other similarly undemocratic and data-driven ways in which universities are being refashioned. In announcing redundancies and course closures, a number of universities (Portsmouth, Liverpool, Brighton, Leeds, Leicester and others) are stripping their own assets. In the case of Portsmouth, the group @Save English Literature at Portsmouth #UCU alleges that decision making has lacked openness. At the University of Sussex, a newly-validated BA course in Languages and Intercultural Studies has been cancelled without consultation.

Some of these decisions appear to constitute major restructuring of the university and curricular provision without going through the regular channels for making such changes. This risks compromising the autonomy of academics to teach and research according to their own judgement. The most egregious violation of this principle is the University of Leicester which recently announced redundancies in English and in Business, with UCU blaming a history of poor financial management.

In English at Leicester, redundancy notices have been served on scholars in medieval literature. If you are thinking that Leicester might have been motivated to nurture its medievalists after the discovery of the remains of Richard III in 2012, well that was probably archived as the last REF’s impact case study. On with the new, as the justification for the cuts, according to management, is to allow greater support for gender and sexuality themes within English literature. Management have seized a tactical opportunity to align this action with their aspiration to ‘shape for excellence’ and towards decolonising the curriculum. If this pronouncement was not so naïve and disingenuous it might find support. But you don’t decolonise the curriculum just by excising every literary period prior to colonisation. As Martin Parker points out in a recent podcast, in the school of business, where a vigorous and renowned critical curriculum already exists, the university management are acting to erase precisely those perspectives. So, critical management studies and political economy are being axed in favour of data analytics, entrepreneurship and leadership along with the erasure of jobs and expertise. These two parallel catastrophes expose the insincerity of a management team trying to camouflage their own opportunistic vandalism as progressive development.

Bad faith and insufferable, gaslighting hypocrisy do long-term damage to ambition, loyalty and trust within an institution. Staff and students are bound to feel poorly served when ratified governance procedures and normal consultation are circumvented to the point whereby the university is left in a weak position academically. Staff suspect politicians and university managers of mounting an ideologically-driven assault on the arts, humanities and social sciences, and it is refreshing to see one university leader calling for resistance to the government onslaught.

As well as echoing government hostility to non-stem subjects, some executive teams seem to be taking their orders from data crunching firms like DataHE or The Knowledge Partnership whose websites suggest they have greater regard for short-term marketing data than for the function or composition of universities. Data HE assert ‘We are expert in data sensitivities…We are data specialists in higher education recruitment and our aim is to accelerate the use of data for good strategy and high performance in universities.’  Despite DataHE’s goal to “increase trust in the use of data”, their blog appears to end in May 2019.


If there is one insight which does have currency within academia, it is that scholars in universities are bound by complex chains of mutual dependence on each other’s knowledge and expertise. Whether you call it collegiality or networks or interdisciplinarity – universities function as intellectual ecosystems. So, international relations is underpinned by history and geography which make use of concepts developed in sociology which has close links with anthropology and social theory whose concepts are developed in cultural studies which informs the study of literature and media. And expertise in all of these disparate but interconnected fields will be represented and strengthened by colleagues in departments of linguistics and modern languages. In science as well, these polymer chains entwine the disciplines and allow new connections to emerge.

It goes without saying that universities are knowledge institutions. Their ability to develop successfully depends on the expertise of the staff who work within them. There are no short cuts to academic careers that require long periods of training in highly specialised areas. This requires academic, personal and financial dedication and all without any guarantee of what the government wishes us to view as ‘return on investment’. In other words, many take the long-term risks, but few are rewarded with the academic post that enables good work and academic freedom.  

It is appalling that these strong but also fragile connections may be carelessly severed by those who are ready to cede institutional autonomy to data consultants or government caprice, or who are willing to see staff numbers fall to in order to finance a new atrium or promote the ultimate status symbol – the overseas campus.

Unless we make decisions on academic grounds and not the data of marketisation, branding, reputation, universities risk irrelevance and collapse into alienation. Research will not be led by curiosity but instead by the kind of ill-informed hunches the prime minister’s advisors tend to have. Higher education will become increasingly standardized, homogenized and dehumanized even as the preposterous contradiction of algorithmically-driven ‘personalization’ is sold to students and university managers alike. It is really important that all staff take part in conversations about the future of universities and the way they may work in the future. Structures of democratic governance and collective decision making have never been more important – or weaker.