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Why universities must lead the conversation on redefining academic freedom

Siobhan O'Brien

Research Engagement & Support Officer, School of Education, Communication & Society

19 January 2023

The concept of academic freedom, which arose to protect academics and allow them to research and teach in areas where they have scholarly expertise, now needs redefining, attendees at a recent event held at King’s College London heard.

Why redefine academic freedom?

The panellists concurred that it is high time to re-imagine the concept of academic freedom to adapt it to the 21st century. The interconnectedness of our ‘global-village’ world, the shifting geopolitical landscape in which higher education is required to play a role, and rapid technological advancements, all have led universities and academics to need to protect the quality of, and trust in, their work as a public good.

Yet, academic freedom must not only be re-considered and re-defined once now. It is the very essence of higher education as a system to be curious and critical about changes occurring in wider society, as well as within itself. As higher education continues to evolve in the future – which it will – universities and academics have a role and responsibility to be proactive – rather than reactive – in determining what consequences these changes might have for any existing definition of academic freedom.– Siobhan O'Brien, Research Engagement & Support Officer, School of Education, Communication & Society

I believe that it would make sense, and greatly benefit, higher education as this self-reflective system to establish a process of continuous re-evaluation and, when needed, re-definition of the concept of academic freedom.

How to redefine academic freedom?

Re-conceptualising academic freedom in a more nuanced way than when it was first articulated at the turn of the 19th century cannot be undertaken without drawing on the expertise of the very academics that it concerns. The erosion of public trust in academia, which has been reported in Western media in recent years, should not prevent higher education actors from taking part in this important conversation. “If we, as academics, are not willing to stand up for academic freedom, what example are we setting for those we teach?” said Prof Terrence Karran, Professor of Higher Education Policy at the University of Lincoln, at the event.

Their relative absence from the drafting of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, currently stalled in UK parliament, is already proving dangerous for academics and their work. Indeed, the bill confuses ‘academic freedom’ and ‘freedom of speech’, despite the latter being more restrictive and neglecting to encompass the research and teaching rights of experts at higher education institutions, as well as the rights of other university stakeholders, such as students, to participate actively in the knowledge exchange at, and governance of, their institutions. These rights are protected by the academic freedom, as Prof Liviu Matei, Professor of Higher Education and Public Policy, and Head of the School of Education, Communication & Society at King’s, pointed out.

Looking at the danger from the other end of the spectrum, Claire Robinson, Director of Advocacy at Scholars at Risk, stressed that we must also define processes for how to protect academic freedom. Regardless of its definition, academics, students, and other stakeholders must be able to identify violations of academic freedom, and learn how to mitigate them, in order to sustain an environment conducive to the production of quality knowledge and research.

Who to redefine academic freedom?

The process of re-defining academic freedom must be removed from its ‘elite bubble’ and be accompanied by other processes of change and development at universities in order for it to be as effective as it can be.

Tamires Sampaio, a lawyer and former Vice-President of the Brazilian Students’ Union, flagged that academic freedom is reliant on the development of diverse and democratised higher education settings. If we expect universities to serve society as a whole, rather than just an elite few, those defining the parameters of academic freedom must also be diverse. This includes hiring diverse university staff and academics, as well as allowing diverse student bodies to participate in this process of definition.

I would want to add the role of trade unions in defining and maintaining processes of academic freedom. Establishing an environment in which academic freedom can flourish in practice goes hand in hand with defining it. We must then also ask what sort of workplace and study conditions must be put in place to allow this ‘flourishing’ to happen. The establishment and maintenance of quality working conditions, such as quality pay and transparent governance structures, by trade unions gives academics the basic confidence they need to embark on their freedom to teach, research, and to generate knowledge.

As Prof Matei stated, academic freedom is “messy” and redefining it will be messier. But it’s only by acknowledging this messiness that we can best articulate a new conceptualisation of academic freedom, one that will most benefit the work of universities in developing and disseminating knowledge as a public good.

Watch the full event:

In this story

Liviu Matei

Liviu Matei

Professor of Higher Education and Public Policy

Shitij Kapur

Shitij Kapur

Vice-Chancellor & President of King's College London

Linda  Woodhead

Linda Woodhead

F.D. Maurice Professor in Moral and Social Theology

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