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UCU statement on academic freedom

16 January 2009

Growing concerns about the threats to free academic inquiry and opinion have prompted the UCU to publish a statement on academic freedom.


Twenty years have passed since the 1988 Education Reform Act established the legal right of academics in the UK '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 the privileges they may have'. However, the University and College Union (UCU) believes that the freedoms to conduct research, teach, speak, and publish without interference or penalty, are increasingly under threat in UK universities and colleges.

Some of these threats stem from the changing nature of funding for UK research, in particular the dominance of the Research Assessment Exercise, the economistic approach of the Research Councils and growing pressures on academics to seek commercial sponsorship. Increasingly selective research funding puts pressure on academics to research in particular national priority areas, while commercialisation of research can restrict the timely dissemination of research findings into the public domain.

Legitimate inquiry and scholarship have also suffered as a result of the introduction of anti-terrorism legislation. There is a growing climate of self-censorship on campus as well as a sense that some issues, particularly relating to security and anti-terrorism, are "too hot to handle". The recent arrests at the University of Nottingham raise major questions about just what kind of research is admissible, who should be allowed to carry it out and how this process is to be 'policed'.  

Nor is this a problem simply affecting research and scholarship in higher education. We are concerned at the number of instances in which the academic judgments of educational professionals have been over-turned by management for non-educational reasons. Education professionals must have the ability to make decisions on students without fear of reprisal or penalty.

Growing concerns about the threats to free academic inquiry and opinion have prompted the UCU to publish our own statement on academic freedom. Drawing upon the 1997 UNESCO recommendation on the status of higher education teaching personnel, as well as work done by one of our sister trade unions (the Canadian Association of University Teachers), the following statement seeks to outline the core principles of academic freedom.

January 2009

UCU statement on academic freedom

1. One of the purposes of post-compulsory education is to serve the public interest through extending knowledge and understanding and fostering critical thinking and expression in staff and students, and then in society more widely. Academic freedom is essential to the achieving these ends and therefore to the development of a civilised democracy.

2. Academic freedom includes the right(s) to:

  • freedom in teaching and discussion;
  • freedom in carrying out research without commercial or political interference;
  • freedom to disseminate and publish one's research findings;
  • freedom from institutional censorship, including the right to express one's opinion publicly about the institution or the education system in which one works; and
  • freedom to participate in professional and representative academic bodies, including trade unions.

3. Academic freedom is also bound up with broader civil liberties and human rights. Higher and further education staff have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, opinion, expression, association and assembly. Staff must not be hindered or impeded in exercising their civil rights as citizens, including the right to contribute to social change through free expression of opinion on matters of public interest. We recognise that this may touch upon sensitive or controversial issues.

4. Academic freedom also comes with the responsibility to respect the democratic rights and freedoms of others. In particular, the University and College Union (UCU) expects all its members to respect national rule 6.1.*

5. Academic freedom requires the development of open, democratic and collegial forms of institutional governance, including access to proper whistleblowing procedures. UCU believes that academic and academic-related staff must play the pre-eminent role in determining the curriculum, assessment standards and research priorities. Academic freedom means that academic and academic-related staff should also have the right to elect a majority of representatives to academic bodies (Senates, Academic Boards etc) within their college or university, as well inclusion on governing bodies. Collegial decision-making should encompass decisions regarding curricula, research, administration, outreach and community work, the allocation of resources and other related activities.

6. Academic and academic-related staff must be free to criticise and publish without fear for their jobs. Academic freedom, therefore, is dependent upon proper employment conditions for higher and further education staff. Security of employment in the profession constitutes one of the major procedural safeguards of academic freedom and against arbitrary decisions by managements and funders.

*Rule 6.1: All members and student members...shall refrain from all forms of harassment, prejudice and unfair discrimination whether on the grounds of sex, race, ethnic or national origin, religion, colour, class, caring responsibilities, marital status, sexuality, disability, age or other status or personal characteristic.

Last updated: 25 January 2022