Policy Papers

Safeguarding academic freedom in a neonationalist political moment

Mike Finn |

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Executive Summary

  • The passage of the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act restructured the governance of higher education in the UK, and raised fundamental issues of academic freedom.
  • This took place in a cultural context where academics have increasingly found themselves on the wrong side of a popular-elite divide in what has been described as the ‘Brexit moment’ in political culture, with academics narrativised by politicians as a self-interested ‘producer group’.
  • The rise of nationalist and neonationalist political cultures in many democratic societies has raised profound questions of academic freedom, a principle codified by the UN in the 1997 UNESCO recommendation.
  • Individual universities in the UK have elected to derogate from the UNESCO recommendation in significant measure, and the UK system in particular leaves academics exposed.
  • A new concordat with government is required to safeguard and enhance academic freedom, a concordat which will amount to a fundamental reassessment of the state-university relationship.


Academic freedom is supposedly a cornerstone of contemporary higher education, but in the UK it has unclear meanings and weak statutory protection. The statutory definition of academic freedom, included in the 1988 Education Reform Act, stated that there was a duty on government bodies (specifically the now-defunct University Commissioners) to

…ensure that academic staff have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institutions…to enable qualifying institutions to provide education, promote learning and engage in research efficiently and economically; and…to apply the principles of justice and fairness.

What this meant in practice was less clear. It was significant that this definition was only included in the 1988 Act as an amendment from Lord Jenkins, the Chancellor of the University of Oxford, and it was put forward as a response to the Thatcher government’s decision to end academic tenure. In much of the world, as in the United States and in Britain itself up to 1988, academic freedom is seen as being guaranteed (in part) by tenure – the principle in academic employment that academics may not be subject to arbitrary dismissal. Tenure makes it much more challenging to remove ‘difficult’ academics, and reflected a convention in the modern academic profession that academics were not employees in the conventional sense but, instead, as Eric Ashby argued in the 1960s, ‘members of a society’. As Ashby put it, academic freedom as commonly understood in Britain meant that a scholar or scientist could ‘upset with impunity the theories of his professor by his research, and embarrass his Vice-Chancellor by his letters to The Times.’ As he noted this was a form of academic freedom relating to the personal rights of the academic, but it was bound up with a different kind of academic freedom – that of the autonomy of institutions.

The focus on academic freedom in Britain in the post-war period was bound up with critiques of totalitarianism abroad, and increasingly over time the threat of government intervention at home. This crystallised debate around the two principal issues outlined above; the autonomy of universities and the individual rights of academics. Academic freedom more broadly was part of a value system in academic life which defined the role of the academic profession and the university itself; for the pursuit of knowledge to take place, for the benefit of society as a whole, academics had to be permitted a wider degree of freedom of opinion than possessed by ordinary employees of an organisation. Ashby framed it even more strongly – academics had not to be considered employees at all.

In contemporary Britain, academic freedom in both senses has come under two main pressures occasioned by the changed nature of the state-university relationship. Firstly, through the financial dependence of most UK universities on the state-backed finance system, governments since the 1980s have, in Roger Brown and Helen Carasso’s terms, ‘steered’ the direction of institutions evermore closely. Reforms to university governance and finance on the part of successive governments of nominally different political complexions have changed British higher education out of all recognition from the 1960s. In 2017, the Conservative government passed the Higher Education and Research Act, a piece of legislation which created a powerful new regulator, the Office for Students, to complete a process of marketisation in higher education which would now make provision for universities to go bust. Marketisation is key to the second pressure on academic freedom in the UK, and relates to the second ‘kind’ of freedom as outlined by Ashby; academics’ personal rights as academics. With universities now brand-conscious businesses, competing in a fratricidal market, academic critique of the kind which could embarrass the Vice-Chancellor in The Times is now seen as reputational damage. Numerous institutions have enforced restrictive social media policies, reputational damage clauses and even ethics policies (pdf) that make criticising one’s own institution in public a disciplinary offence or veto the publication of ‘embarrassing’ research (despite the fact that such freedoms are integral to the UNESCO recommendation on academic freedom as agreed in 1997).

In this policy paper, contemporary developments will be reassessed in light of the British historical experience to offer a proposal for safeguarding academic freedom in the UK, in the service of freedom of thought and the advancement of knowledge. With academic institutions under severe pressure in Hungary and Brazil, and with elements of the same discourses circulating in political debate in Britain in the ‘Brexit moment’, it is argued here that a new concordat with the state to safeguard academic freedom is a vital step in the protection not merely of universities but of civil society in an increasingly neonationalist political culture. However, it is noted that the academic tendency to regard academic freedom as an entity on its own is wrongheaded; any concordat to defend academic freedom must have at its core an idea of the university as a critical entity and will have significant implications for government policy on funding, governance and wider civil society issues.

Academic freedom in the UK: a brief history

In a perceptive book written in the wake of the 1988 Education Reform Act, Conrad Russell offers a persuasive depiction of the nature of academic freedom as previously described by Ashby; institutional autonomy and personal academic rights. The two are intrinsically linked. For Russell, universities are the ‘lineal descendants’ of the medieval church; the ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge literally so. As such, academic freedom of Russell’s and Ashby’s first order – institutional autonomy – is redolent of the struggles between church and state that characterised the medieval era. The second order – the rights of individual academics to pursue free enquiry ‘without fear’, is contingent on the first but has been evolving since the eighteenth century. Ashby locates this in the adoption of the principles of Lehrfreiheit, the freedom to study as one sees fit, a mythologised symbol of the German research university, internalised in British higher education in the course of the nineteenth century as Oxford and Cambridge were reformed and a range of new universities – from University College London to the ‘redbricks’ – were founded.

As such, contemporary British understandings of academic freedom are rooted in values derived from the period between the removal of religious tests for entry to Oxford and Cambridge in the late nineteenth century and the removal of tenure in the 1988 Education Reform Act. Prior to the removal of the religious tests, academics could still – in effect – find themselves declared guilty of heresy or apostasy by their institutions. At the height of the Tractarian controversy in Oxford in the 1840s, the theologian and mathematician W. G. Ward was stripped of his MA degree at the behest of the Church of England. Even after the removal of the religious tests in 1871, opposition to the state could have dire consequences for academics. During the First World War, Bertrand Russell had famously been dismissed by Trinity College, Cambridge, due to a conviction he received under the Defence of the Realm Act for his activities opposing conscription, though he was reinstated some years later. The cases of Ward and Bertrand Russell illustrate a significant point of continuing significance for academic freedom in contemporary Britain; namely that whilst institutional autonomy from the state is a necessary condition for academic freedom, it is not a sufficient one. Institutions can be formally autonomous from the state (although neither Oxford in the 1840s or Trinity, Cambridge in the 1910s were), but in considering academic freedom in terms of the rights of the individual academic, these rights must also be guaranteed against their own institutions as well as against the state, particularly if – as some have argued in the present moment – formally autonomous institutions have internalised the governmentality of the state within their senior management teams.

By 1919, universities had grown significantly in number and were increasingly dependent on state subventions for their activities, resulting in the founding of the University Grants Committee as a standing Treasury committee charged with disbursing government money to institutions. With an academic majority, it took on the role of a ‘buffer’ between the state and the universities, and served in this capacity until it was axed by the Conservative government in 1989. Before 1975 this had created a structure – the quinquennial system (pdf) – where large amounts of block grant were allocated to institutions but the specifics of spending remained under academic control, a system which met with broad approval from the American scholar Robert Berdahl when he published his major study on British Universities and the State in 1959. The UGC, which reported directly to the Treasury until 1964 before being transferred to the new Department for Education and Science, represented a funding model for an elite system where academic freedom was entrenched by the shared values of academics and government officials; as Ashby put it in the 1950s in an oft-cited remark, ‘the civil servant who is at the same time a Fellow of All Souls’ is the best guarantee one could have for the autonomy of British universities’. These values, as articulated by the practices of the UGC, did extend to an understanding that academics should choose their own research topics, though, as David Edgerton has noted, the so-called ‘Haldane principle’ enshrining this is an invention of tradition rather than a direct result of the activities of those involved in university governance and research funding in the pre-war era.

The 1930s had previously heightened discussion of academic freedom in the UK due to the advent of the Nazi regime in Germany, which prompted an exodus of academics to universities in Britain and around the world. The fate of the German universities, which academic elites in Britain saw as culpable in the rise of Nazism, was of particular significance for British perceptions of academic freedom given the prestige previously afforded to the German universities in British culture. The rise of totalitarianism abroad focused British minds on questions of academic freedom even as they had a far more benign view of their own state-university relationship, and a number of émigré academics (including Karl Mannheim and Karl Popper) made significant contributions to debates concerning the role of academics in society and the power of the state. Popper for his part was highly influential in the thinking of Lionel Robbins, who went on to chair the Committee for Higher Education which would produce the iconic document of the turn to mass higher education in post-war Britain.

Included in the Robbins Report when published was a chapter dedicated to academic freedom. For Robbins and his committee, it was apparent that the proposed expansion of higher education and the changed funding arrangements recommended by the earlier Anderson Report (and translated into law in 1962) would fundamentally alter the relationship between the universities and the state. Robbins was acutely aware that to some, academic freedom could seem like a licence to vice. Two decades earlier, Bruce Truscot (the pseudonym of Edgar Allison Peers, professor of Hispanic Studies at the University of Liverpool) had mercilessly satirised ‘Professor Deadwood’, the tenured senior academic who did very little in return for his stipend. But for Robbins, writing in the wake of a war against totalitarianism, the benefits outweighed the risks:

Freedom of institutions as well as individual freedom is an essential constituent of a free society and the tradition of academic freedom in this country has deep roots in the whole history of our people. We are convinced also that such freedom is a necessary condition of the highest efficiency and the proper progress of academic institutions, and that encroachments upon their liberty, in the supposed interests of greater efficiency, would in fact diminish their efficiency and stultify their development.

On the specific charge that the amount of latitude allowed to individual academics might lead to waste, Robbins was direct:

Freedom of this sort may sometimes lend itself to abuses. But the danger of such abuses is much less than the danger of trying to eliminate them by general restriction of individual liberty.

To Robbins, if not to his Treasury sponsors, it was self-evident that universities needed to maintain a strong measure of institutional autonomy to safeguard academic freedom in the fullest sense, and that this was essential to the defence of a ‘free society’; Robbins made the case for ‘education for a free society’, in which autonomous universities played a key role, at a conference of university leaders in Gottingen in 1964.

And yet British university expansion in the post-war period was driven primarily by what Edgerton has characterised as the ‘warfare state’; in 1946, the Labour Government, concerned about universities’ perceived lack of responsiveness to ‘national needs’, considered transferring the whole sector to the control of the Minister of Education. Such attempts – spearheaded by Herbert Morrison and Ellen Wilkinson – took place in Cabinet committee, and were only forestalled by the manoeuvres of the former LSE academic and Chancellor of the Exchequer Hugh Dalton. The UGC nonetheless had its terms of reference redrawn to foster greater co-ordination of the university sector, and in the 1950s under Sir Keith Murray the UGC initiated its own expansion plans which resulted in seven new universities in England by the end of the 1960s. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education under the Conservative minister Sir David Eccles sponsored new forms of higher education to break the university monopoly, namely the Colleges of Advanced Technology, which in the wake of Robbins became universities themselves. In 1973, as Conrad Russell has noted, the impact of the oil crisis began a process of change in the political economy of the British state which gradually assumed neoliberal garb in the latter stages of the Callaghan government and which reached its apotheosis during Thatcherism. ‘Efficiency’ – condemned as a justification for state intervention by Robbins – now became the watchword of government policy, and as Russell documents, an assault on ‘unit costs’ began.

The interventionist ambitions of the Thatcher governments to promote efficiency and to reprioritise the universities’ aims in favour of the ‘service of the economy’ were seen at the time as an unprecedented threat to academic freedom, and raised questions of governance that illustrate the issues at stake in the present. Through the removal of academic tenure, the British government elected to repudiate a key element of the Robbins settlement, and through subsequent legislation in 1992 and 1998 began to intervene much more aggressively in the higher education system.

Governance, the Brexit moment, and the fate of academic freedom


In 2017, despite widespread protests from university leaders, the Conservative government passed the Higher Education and Research Act, which sought to complete the transition to a fully marketised higher education system which the 2010 Browne Review sought to inaugurate. This had several key implications for both of the principal modes of academic freedom as described by Conrad Russell; the autonomy of institutions and the rights of academics within them.

Firstly, the removal of the principle that the government would underwrite individual institutions in the event of financial difficulty ensured that institutions were now extremely vulnerable to fluctuations in demand in the market. In the government view, this was a positive; it would drive up competition and thence standards. From the point of view of academic freedom, it has been disastrous. The voicing of academic opinions has become an issue of brand management. As universities have become more marketised, they have increasingly introduced social media policies and reputational damage clauses to police academic speech. Individual institutions have also circumscribed the remit of academic speech to an academic’s own research, despite this being in breach of the 1997 UNESCO recommendation on academic freedom. For an academic to criticise their own institution in public has become, in many universities, a disciplinary offence, and many academics criticising their institutions in public (particularly via the social media network Twitter) during the 2018 industrial dispute over pensions found themselves duly disciplined. In this, universities are behaving as businesses do, but it is impossible to square such an approach with either the 1988 academic freedom amendment or the 1997 UNESCO recommendation, both of which the UK has derogated from. As Terrance Karran and Lucy Mallinson note (pdf), the 1988 amendment is, in any event, unenforceable; since 1995 no University Commissioners have been appointed, and though the definition was reproduced with modifications in the 2017 Act its inclusion was merely performative (and the reference to University Commissioners was removed). For university senior management teams, disciplining staff for criticising institutions is simply ‘protecting the brand’ in an era of intense market competition; in these terms it is a ‘rational’ response. The brand must survive, or the university might not.

Secondly, the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and the previous extension of the Prevent duty to universities, fundamentally violated a central principle of Lehrfeiheit; the academic right to teach what they wish, how and as they wish. The awarding of Gold, Silver, and Bronze ‘medals’ to institutions for meeting supposed standards of ‘teaching excellence’ (although teaching itself is not measured, merely a series of proxies), compelled institutions to regulate their teaching ever more closely. At a number of universities, compulsory Prevent training is now required to pass probation; resistance – non-compliance - means dismissal and the probable end of an academic career. This is despite the condemnation of Prevent by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, and the overwhelming decision by the University and College Union’s supreme policymaking body, Congress, that its members should not cooperate with it. This decision was subsequently vitiated by the union’s lawyers ruling that this would amount to an instruction to members to engage in ‘continuous industrial action’ (pdf), and so has become a symbolic, rather than a meaningful, one – a common thread in statements on academic authority and academic freedom in contemporary Britain.

Thirdly, the consolidation of UK government strategic research priorities through the formation of UK Research and Innovation and the previously-announced Global Challenges Research Fund has further reduced academics’ ability to exercise their personal discretion in terms of the direction of their research. With the embedding of ‘pre’ and ‘rolling REF’ research evaluation exercises in universities, along with the drive towards ‘impact’, academic research agendas are increasingly circumscribed and directed away from personal expertise, with a significant bias against arts and humanities research. At one major research university proposals have been floated which rebrand non-grant-funded arts and humanities research as ‘unfunded research’ with an accompanying reduction in hours allocated to arts and humanities academics for such research vis-à-vis their peers in other disciplines.

Fourthly, the need to rapidly respond to initiatives from government and the new regulator further incentivised university leadership teams to abandon academic governance. Governance is widely recognised by scholars and the United Nations as central to the ability for individual academics to exercise academic freedom, and, indeed, to the ‘idea of a university’ as a ‘self-governing corporation of scholars’. The history of modern British university governance is well documented within the discipline, but the UNESCO recommendation is worth quoting at length:

B. Self-governance and collegiality

31. Higher-education teaching personnel should have the right and opportunity, without discrimination of any kind, according to their abilities, to take part in the governing bodies and to criticize the functioning of higher education institutions, including their own, while respecting the right of other sections of the academic community to participate, and they should also have the right to elect a majority of representatives to academic bodies within the higher education institution.

32. The principles of collegiality include academic freedom, shared responsibility, the policy of participation of all concerned in internal decision making structures and practices, and the development of consultative mechanisms. Collegial decision-making should encompass decisions regarding the administration and determination of policies of higher education, curricula, research, extension work, the allocation of resources and other related activities, in order to improve academic excellence and quality for the benefit of society at large.

As Eric Lybeck has noted (pdf), UK universities have increasingly restricted participation in governance by their staffs over the past several decades. This has been justified in terms of business logics; as universities have become marketised, the need to ‘be agile’ has led to a belief amongst university managerial teams that academic self-governance is a luxury institutions cannot afford. Scholars such as Brown and Carasso trace these developments to the wake of the Jarratt Report by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals in 1985, but taken together with the removal of academic tenure in 1988 and the marketisation of the sector as a whole since the reintroduction of undergraduate tuition fees in 1998, this marginalisation has left academics increasingly without a voice in the running of their own institutions. With tenure abolished, universities such as Warwick and Leeds have moved to reduce academic employment protections still further.

The Brexit moment

Encapsulated in former Education Secretary Michael Gove’s famous statement ‘this country has had enough of experts’, the Brexit moment in political culture has resulted in the rise of a popular antipathy to academics and universities on the part of a significant section of the UK population. With nine out of ten university academics estimated to have voted to remain in the European Union in the 2016 referendum, as Peter Mandler and David Runciman have separately noted, this left them out of step in some measure with the majority of those who chose to vote in the 2016 Referendum. Whilst this has occasioned soul-searching within universities and without, it has also been accompanied by attacks on the universities and their academics from across the political spectrum. The infamous ‘Our Remainer Universities’ attack on individual academics working and teaching in the European Union by the Daily Mail newspaper was the most high-profile instance, but it should be noted that it was sparked by a Conservative whip asking Vice-Chancellors for the names and syllabi of staff teaching on Brexit. The appointment of members of the Office for Students board was also controversial; though academics and universities were asked to take these appointments on good faith, a subsequent inquiry by the Commissioner for Public Appointments into the short-lived appointment of the Conservative Toby Young to the board found that his appointment had circumvented proper scrutiny. The unwillingness of the Conservative government to substantively engage with academic concerns on this and other issues has led to a fundamental breakdown of trust between academics and the state. In January 2019, this state of affairs led to UCU submitting a formal complaint to UNESCO with regard to the state of academic freedom in the UK. Notwithstanding the trials of the 1980s, it is arguable that state-university relations are at a lower ebb than at any point in the last hundred years.

Conclusion: The need for a concordat

When Conrad Russell began writing his short book on academic freedom in the late 1980s, he was convinced that the aftermath of the 1988 Education Reform Act merited a reassessment of the relationship between universities and the state, but that this tension was characteristic of British history and that the relationship would, ultimately, endure. When he finished writing it, he repudiated that view; for Russell, what he had seen in 1988 as the subordination of universities to narrowly political imperatives had continued even as he wrote his text, and had moved the state-university relationship to a place beyond saving. The only answers for Russell, writing in the early 1990s, were: either a repudiation of the state and its finance system – going private – for a select number of institutions; or the acceptance that, in the United Kingdom, universities were no longer, in truth, worthy of the name, having diverged too sharply from internationally-understood values of the university as Russell understood them.

If we are to argue that all is not lost, as Russell believed in the early 1990s, then a positive proposal for the defence of academic freedom needs to be made. This is challenging, as much of the political economy of contemporary higher education – anchored in a logic of marketisation – is not allied to an idea of the university which, at root, takes academic freedom seriously. It is also, to the vast bulk of the population, a recondite conversation which can look like special pleading for an occupational elite. But a proposal rooted in historical analysis might take the form of a concordat between the state and the universities, enforceable through the courts or a body of arbitration. This draws on Russell’s argument that popular anti-academic sentiment is the successor of medieval and early modern anticlericalism. Russell’s belief that Europe might act as a bulwark for British academic freedom now looks, in light of the 2016 referendum result, misplaced. This is not the place to specify in detail what a concordat might look like, but to recognise that one is necessary.

Such a concordat might feature a number of proposals to enhance and entrench academic freedom, but significantly it will need to be drafted by academics themselves, rather than their university leaderships. This is not to underplay the challenges such a process would involve. Government is unwilling at present to countenance serious engagement with academics on these issues, since they fundamentally cut across the prevailing neoliberal political economy and would, if taken seriously, mean at least some rollback of the marketisation agenda in British higher education. In this, then, academics must take the lead in making the case for an idea of a university with academic freedom at is heart which unashamedly runs counter to the prevailing policy landscape. As Russell notes, for the state-university relationship to survive has meant, historically, that the state has had to come to accept the universities on at least something like their own terms. If, in pursuit of ‘unbundling’, the university is to be remade out of existence in favour of a new form of techno-nationalist university in name only, British society will suffer immeasurably. The historical record shows that academic freedom is often in jeopardy and always needs defending, but that these issues are inseparable from a broader examination of the relationship between universities and the state. During a neonationalist turn in contemporary political culture, it is imperative that the ‘universities of a free society’ Robbins strove for remain just that.

Further Reading

Roger Brown with Helen Carasso, Everything for Sale: The marketisation of UK higher education (Routledge, 2013)

John Carswell, Government and the Universities, 1960-1980: Programme and performance (Cambridge University Press, 1985)

Committee on Higher Education, Higher Education: Report of the Committee [Robbins Report] Cmnd. 2154 (HMSO, 1963)

Terrence Karran and Lucy Mallinson, Academic Freedom in the UK: Legal and normative protection in a comparative context (University and College Union, 2017)

Eric Royal Lybeck, Who Rules Our Universities?, USSBriefs No. 15 (April 2018)

Conrad Russell, Academic Freedom (Routledge, 1993)

C. H. Shinn, Paying the Piper: The development of the University Grants Committee, 1919-1946 (Falmer, 1986)

Malcolm Tight, The Development of Higher Education in the United Kingdom since 1945 (Open University Press, 2009)

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