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Managerial era 'threatens' academic freedom

There is a "vast" amount of litigation concerning academic freedom in the US, while in the UK there is "virtually none".

Yet in the latter, according to Eric Barendt, emeritus professor of media law at University College London, "the concept is incorporated into university charters and implied terms of contracts, at least in the pre-1992 universities".

However, Professor Barendt believes that academic freedom in the UK is threatened by the "managerial culture of universities, the quality assurance and research assessment culture, and the pressures on academics to produce safe scholarly articles that shy away from the big questions and only move the argument forward by an inch".

He added that some scientific and medical research may be inhibited by researchers' funding contracts, something that "can represent a serious threat to academic freedom".

Professor Barendt was speaking after the launch of his latest book, Academic Freedom and the Law: A Comparative Study, in which he considers the nature, extent and possible rationales of academic freedom; whether the right extends to extramural speech; restrictions on freedom of research; and the challenges of the "age of terrorism".

Also speaking at the launch event last week, Malcolm Grant, provost of UCL, noted that academic freedom was a phrase sometimes used to justify "eccentric activity", even attacks on university management - "although if universities can't accept robust criticism, who can?"

The arrest of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a former UCL student, for attempting to blow up an aircraft on Christmas Day 2009 had led to a media outcry and claims that "the senior management at UCL had been too liberal and were personally complicit", Professor Grant added. Yet he supported people's right to "expose controversial, even offensive ideas in an environment where they can be challenged".

Professor Barendt said he believed that the freedom of academics to teach and research what they want tends to be promoted by universities' institutional autonomy and the remnants of academic self-rule within them.

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Professor Barendt is correct to identify the corporate and publication pressures that inhibit academics from producing novel and challenging work. One might add to this the abuse of libel laws to suppress scientific papers another finds too critical (see http://www.sciencemag.org/content/328/5984/1350.summary). There are a variety of noxious and seditious ideas in the intellectual world, but whether it is Chris Brand, the sophistry of critical theory, or the still ongoing MMR vaccination and autism debate it is the very stuff of the academic world to challenge, argue and refute (or find true), and these arguments should be part of what we teach. Academics in universities should not be crushed by MBA-inspired micromanagement.

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