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UK academics warn of low levels of protection for academic freedom

25 May 2017

UK academics report significantly lower levels of protection for their academic freedom, when compared to colleagues in other EU countries, says a report from Professor Terence Karran and Lucy Mallinson of the University of Lincoln.

Academic Freedom in the UK: Legal and Normative Protection in a Comparative Context also reveals that a quarter of UK academics (23%) say they have been subjected to bullying by colleagues because of their views. The wide-ranging survey was commissioned by the University and College Union (UCU) as part of its efforts to better define what academic freedom means and to ensure it is better protected.

The report includes surveys of UCU members and academics from the other 27 EU member states. Just two-fifths of UK academics (42%) said they felt they had an adequate working knowledge of the concept of academic freedom. Academic freedom is clearly important to academics though as four-fifths of (81%) said they wanted more information on the concept of academic freedom.

Key findings:

  • nearly a quarter (23%) of UK academics said they had been bullied by colleagues because of their views, compared to 14% of EU colleagues
  • two-fifths of UK academics (42%) said they have an adequate working knowledge of concept of academic freedom. A third (34%) said they did not.
  • 81% of UK academics wanted more information on academic freedom. Three-quarters (74%) of colleagues in other EU countries wanted more information.
  • UK academics feel they have far worse levels of protection of academic freedom than EU colleagues
  • over a quarter of UK academics say they have a low level of protection (28%), compared to 13% of EU colleagues.
  • half (49%) of EU academics say they have a high level of protection, compared to just 22% in the UK
  • half of UK academics (52%) compared with a third (34%) of EU colleagues say protection of academic freedom in their university has diminished in recent years
  • over two-fifths (43%) of UK academics say individual academic freedom for teaching has declined, compared to a quarter (25%) in EU countries
  • two-thirds of UK staff (67%) say employment protection for academic staff has declined in recent years, compared to just over half (54%) in EU countries

The report's authors argues that to be able to defend academic freedom you must understand it. They also makes the case that people need job security if they are to be really free to challenge certain notions, and be fully involved in university governance.

The union said it hoped the release of the report would kick-start a debate within the union and on campuses about what academic freedom is and how academics should defend it.

The union said it would be considering a range of options in response to the report, including looking at the possibility of exploring whether or not the UK fulfils its requirements with regard to the UNESCO 1997 recommendation on academic freedom. Author Terence Karran will be discussing the report with delegates at UCU's annual congress in Brighton on Saturday lunch time.

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: 'This wide-ranging and important report highlights the surprisingly low numbers of academics who feel they have a decent understanding of what academic freedom really is. Less surprising, and somewhat reassuring, is the high percentage that regard it as important.

'In the current climate, where facts have been relegated to secondary importance, it is absolutely vital that experts start to be heard again as dangerous policy and political positions can be taken by those who do not fully understand an issue.

'We believe a free society is one that is defined by robust self-governing institutions that regulate themselves within the law, but outside government influence. The launch of the report at UCU Congress also represents the start of a wider debate on what academic freedom is and how universities must defend it. This is a debate we hope the entire sector will get involved in.'

Last updated: 2 April 2019