What is freedom? Choosing your v-c

Proposal is key part of plan for European 'Magna Charta' on scholars' rights. Rebecca Attwood writes

Academics would be given the right to appoint their own vice-chancellors under plans for a Europe-wide definition of academic freedom.

The proposals have been tabled by Terence Karran, a senior academic in the Centre for Educational Research and Development at the University of Lincoln, who said the UK was the "sick man of Europe" when it came to scholarly freedom.

His plans, outlined in his paper Academic Freedom in Europe: Time for a Magna Charta?, have already attracted interest from the Magna Charta Observatory in Bologna, which was set up by the European University Association. But others are concerned that a prescriptive definition could restrict, rather than liberate, scholars.

Dr Karran argues that Europe should follow the lead of the US, where a definition of academic freedom produced by the American Association of University Professors is widely accepted.

A similar approach in Europe would promote academic mobility by assuring staff that they would not face greater restrictions if they moved to another European Union country, he says.

One of the cornerstones of the proposals is the need for academic self-governance. Setting out his plans in the journal Higher Education Policy, Dr Karran says: "To guarantee academic freedom, academic staff must ... be able to determine who shall serve as rector.

"Where possible, the rector should be appointed from within the university by a democratic process with the support of the majority of academic staff."

He adds: "Where the appointment is external ... academic staff should have the major role in determining (it)."

This could include deciding the shortlist, making the final appointment or having the right of veto.

However, Steve Fuller, professor of sociology at the University of Warwick, said the focus on self-governance was a "diversion" from the real issue.

"The idea of academics choosing vice-chancellors from among their own ranks seems to me a completely antiquated notion and not necessary for academic freedom," he said.

Glynis Breakwell, vice-chancellor of the University of Bath, who has carried out research into how university heads are appointed, said that such an approach would be "totally novel" in the UK.

But she added that Dr Karran's proposals already operate in some countries and "are regarded to have strengths and weaknesses in practice".

Concerns have also been raised because Dr Karran's definition limits academic freedom of speech to comments made within specific areas of expertise.

The draft proposals say: "Utterances made on campus that are outside the academics' stated areas of expertise ... or made outside a formal academic setting, are protected by generic rights of free speech, but not by academic freedom."

Dennis Hayes, professor of education at the University of Derby and founder of the Academics for Academic Freedom group, said: "Academic freedom will not be advanced by a 15-page definition that will be a minefield for lawyers and university bureaucrats - a definition that also imposes restrictions on the currently 'ill-defined' freedoms academics may take advantage of, by excluding extramural utterances from its scope."

Dr Karran's proposals, which are derived from common strands of national legislation within the EU, set out academics' right "to voice opinions on the educational policies and priorities within their institutions without the imposition or threat of punitive action".

They also articulate the principle that no one should be "required to participate in academic or artistic work that conflicts with his or her conscience".

Scholars must have the right to determine the areas they research, the subject curriculum, who is allowed to teach and study, and how students' work is assessed, the paper says.

It also states that academic freedom requires job security. Tenure was abolished in the UK by the Education Reform Act 1988.

Despite supporting the idea of a statement of legally binding principles of academic freedom, Professor Fuller said the definition was "too defensive" and should also include students.

"If you put too much stress on expertise, it becomes very easy to censor academics," he added.

Professor Hayes said the problem with Dr Karran's approach was that it saw academic freedom as "something to be 'granted' or 'given' rather than something that academics have to fight for".

"In the current academic climate in which self-censorship and fear of speaking up and being critical are rife, offering the fearful or intimidated the protection of a Magna Charta has some appeal," he said.

"But its consequence could be to reinforce academic passivity and make the defence of academic freedom a matter for lawyers rather than the responsibility of every academic to speak their mind."

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com

FREEDOM UNDER REVIEW

Legislation in Denmark is set to be reviewed after an earlier paper by Terence Karran on the health of academic freedom in Europe.

His research, reported by Information, a Danish daily newspaper, found that Denmark had little protection in law for academic freedom compared with other European Union states.

As a result, Dansk Magisterforening, the Danish university lecturers' union, has formally appealed to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation claiming that academic freedom is inadequately protected by Danish law.

The country's 2003 University Law is now due to be reviewed, and the union will present evidence arguing for change.

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