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Academic freedom in illiberal times

This spiked drinks event, in association with Academics for Academic Freedom and Times Higher Education, debated the impact of the closing down of debate and free thinking on campus.

While traditionally conceived of as spaces dedicated to learning, research and the free exchange of ideas, universities have been earmarked by recent UK governments as potential breeding-grounds for extremism. The home secretary, Theresa May, published an updated version of the last government’s Prevent strategy in 2011, encouraging academics to monitor any students or colleagues who may be at risk of being indoctrinated by dangerous ideas such as Islamic extremism, Holocaust denial or far-right nationalism. Meanwhile, student unions have taken to policing what can and can’t be discussed, with a ‘No Platform’ policy still in place on many campuses, in an attempt to guard against the influence of the far-right.

Do universities and student unions have a responsibility to shield young minds from dangerous views? Or should we allow them the intellectual autonomy to debate and contest them in a free and open forum?

In short: what are the limits to academic freedom today?

The result was a lively debate, with the Grand Committee Room packed to hear our distinguished panel discuss this important issue. The debate continuing into the night over drinks nearby.

‘Really topical debate, made even more interesting with questions from a knowledgeable audience.’
Munira Mirza, deputy mayor of London for education and culture

‘The audience demonstrated their command of freedom of speech by asking the most penetrating of questions with the greatest courtesy: the evening was a showcase of civilised values.’
Terence Kealey, vice chancellor of the University of Buckingham

Listen to the debate here:


Joanna Williams
spiked education editor and lecturer in higher education and academic practice at the University of Kent


Dennis Hayes
professor of education at the University of Derby and founder of the campaign group Academics For Academic Freedom (AFAF)

Terence Kealey
vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham and a professor of clinical biochemistry

Munira Mirza
London deputy mayor for education and culture

Bill Rammell
vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire; former minister of state for higher education

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