Academic Freedom: for Institutions or Academics?
In the UK context, ‘Academic Freedom’ as a concept is dominated by the idea that institutions should be free from direct political interference.
The four classic categories are this freedom:
- Freedom to appoint staff
- Freedom to select students (so that Offa can instruct universities to expand their pool of applicants but not task them with changing the results of offers made).
- Freedom to teach (the curriculum is out of bounds to government)
- Freedom to research (invoke “Haldane”!)
This has two consequences:
- The loss of autonomy from partnering with private money – direct or indirect – is poorly sketched or understood and is abstractly – and naively – imagined as a free contract between two private parties (university and funding source);
- The academic freedom of academics is subordinated to the institutional definition. Do the four categories above cascade down to faculty or departmental level? Or are these freedoms the preserve of the executive?
Academic freedom as defended by vice-chancellors and managerial class really means the freedom to act like a business with light regulation, where academics are employees to be instructed and students are customers.
If we are serious about academic freedom for academics, then institutional governance needs overhauling. But it has to be done by academics. No HE legislation in 2015/16 is going to undo chronic managerialism with its bullying and incompetence.