Although the once-sacrosanct world of academia made national headlines in the UK with some regularity last year, certain issues were considered more newsworthy than others. Gender segregation, student protests and access to Oxbridge got many former-students-turned-commentators hot under the collar, and high-profile atheists successfully defended the rights of students to wear Jesus and Mo t-shirts. But support for students wanting to listen to ‘Blurred Lines’ or read the Sun was notable by its absence. Similarly, little was said about attacks on the freedom of expression of those working in universities. When calls to censor academics come not from heavy-handed managers but from feminist colleagues seeking to curtail debate, academic freedom is not as clear-cut an issue as it may have been in the past.
There are few formal restrictions preventing academics saying or writing whatever they want. Indeed, the newly effective Defamation Act has been welcomed on the basis that it provides protection against the threat of libel for academics whose research is published in peer-reviewed journals. But it would be wrong to interpret this lack of censorship on the part of management as a licence for free expression within universities. It’s not fear of libel which curtails debate; rather, it’s the reluctance of academics to say anything controversial at all. There are many reasons people may choose to self-censor, be it a fear of being sacked or perhaps a heavy workload that leaves little time for engaging in debate.
More problematic, particularly in the social sciences, is a growing sense that there are some views that just cannot be expressed. On the one hand, the pseudo-radical, broadly left-wing consensus that pervades universities means that castigating neoliberalism, the influence of the popular media, and the desire to consume, will automatically garner the support of the peers who will review your work for publication and you for promotion. On the other hand, not paying lip-service to the importance of feminism, the welfare state, and protecting the environment, is more likely to see your work rejected. New academics are often recruited because their research fits into the existing departmental culture. Students are taught the values of their lecturers.
Holding, and expressing, controversial ideas that will test the limits of academic freedom requires an ability to think critically. Too often it seems that universities today actually seek to prevent criticality and instead try to coerce groupthink among academics and students alike. One way this happens is through the enculturation of particular collective values. In the strange world of academia, an individual’s values and principles are no longer a private affair. Rather, they’re to be ‘given’ to you, which means you can be explicitly told which opinions to hold.
This year lecturers in British universities will be under increased pressure to gain ‘professional recognition’ from the Higher Education Academy (a body which claims to ‘champion excellent learning and teaching in higher education’). Part of the process of gaining recognition involves lecturers demonstrating that they have met the values specified in the HEA’s professional standards framework. Lecturers are expected to:
- Respect individual learners and diverse learning communities
- Promote participation in higher education and equality of opportunity for learners
- Use evidence-informed approaches and the outcomes from research, and continuing professional development
- Acknowledge the wider context in which higher education operates, recognising the implications for professional practice.