Academic freedom is not freedom of speech for academics

The UK’s Higher Education Bill could become a new global reference on academic freedom – if only it can get the definition right, say Liviu Matei and Shitij Kapur

November 24, 2022
Sorting office with speech bubbles to illustrate Academic freedom is not the same as freedom of speech for academics
Source: Getty (edited)

It is only rarely that circumstances in universities become subjects of impassioned public debates. When they happen, those debates are indicative of how society sees higher education – and also of higher education’s relevance to society.

Such is the case with academic freedom. The main function of universities is to produce and transmit knowledge as a public good, and academic freedom is commonly considered as indispensable for doing that as air is for breathing. Yet academic freedom remains conceptually elusive, regulatorily fragile and often uncertain in practice. What is it for? Is it a right or a privilege? And does one have it because of who one is or because of how one works?

Over time, there have been many definitions, university regulations and even national and international laws relating to academic freedom. The current public debate in the UK is driven by incidents of “no platforming”, usually of external speakers, on a few university campuses. As a result, the debate – and the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which is making its way through Parliament – conceives academic freedom, in essence, in terms of freedom of speech alone.

As the concept of academic freedom has evolved, it has remained tied to the notion of scholarship and disciplinary standards. Hence, criticising a political party in a mathematics class may be protected under freedom of speech but not under academic freedom – unless there were a direct link to the instructor’s research or teaching and to the subject of that class. Contrariwise, academic freedom goes beyond the freedom to communicate knowledge, to issues such as choosing research questions and methods.

Humboldt’s first modern conception of academic freedom advocated the use of Prussian state power to protect the independence of academic work, including from the state itself. International and non-state threats to academic freedom as we know them today – including from within the university – were not a concern.

The influential understanding of academic freedom promoted by the American Association of University Professors since 1915 relates to a constitutional amendment in the US, so is not easily translatable everywhere. The 1940 restatement of those principles has been endorsed by more than 250 national scholarly and educational associations, but not governments.

Unesco’s 1997 Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel is one of the most ambitious recent attempts to conceptualise academic freedom and was ratified by many states. However, very few staff, students or public authorities have even heard about it. It is not implemented anywhere.

More recently, the European Court of Justice ruled against Hungary in 2020 in a case about restrictions on foreign higher education institutions’ ability to operate in the country. The verdict hinged not on academic freedom but on commercial legislation deemed to confer a right on universities to deliver services. That year, ministerial delegations from 49 European countries also adopted a statement that frames academic freedom as a fundamental value of higher education. But values are not usually enforced in law.

On the positive side, the UK’s bill encourages universities to “promote” understanding of academic freedom, which is much needed. It may also encourage them to undertake the vital task of making the case to wider society that academic freedom is a social good and not a perk for academics.

But defining academic freedom exclusively in terms of freedom of speech brings several risks. It severs academic freedom’s traditional link to research and teaching and removes the obligation to abide by disciplinary standards of rigour. It would appear to give academics the right to make any claims, however outlandish. On the other hand, this right is restricted in the bill to “academic staff”, excluding students and research-only staff, who are not formally academic staff in most university classifications.

Many of the historical definitions of academic freedom don’t work as well today because the breadth of academic endeavours and modes of knowledge advancement have changed dramatically. What is needed is not another incomplete definition but a reimagining of what academic freedom means in a world where research and knowledge dissemination follow so many modalities and routinely straddle national boundaries.

The necessary public discussion should also reflect on how academic freedom can be monitored, regarding both infringements and cases where academics themselves stray beyond its reasonable limits and obligations. It should consider whether quick recourse to a civil tort, as the bill proposes, is really the best way to address infringements. It should also consider whether it is possible to have a common global reference for academic freedom at all.

If it is, the Freedom of Speech Bill could become a powerful new global reference, with an enduring impact. But we need to get it right. We need to give academic freedom a great deal more thought.

Liviu Matei is founder of the Global Observatory on Academic Freedom and head of the School of Education, Communication and Society at King’s College London, where Shitij Kapur is president and principal. King’s is hosting a series of public events on academic freedom to better understand and influence what is happening. Other institutions are invited to participate and engage their own communities.

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