The philistines in the ivory tower

The real threat to academic freedom today comes from the collapse of belief in the worth of intellectual enquiry.

Tara McCormack

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Topics Free Speech

The shortlived UK Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills was disbanded last week and universities were put under the control of a new super-ministry, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, to be run by the ultimate come-back king, Peter Mandelson. Such is the breadth of the new ministry that Whitehall wits have already dubbed it ‘Mandelson’s Raj’.

Some academics have warned of universities becoming totally subordinated to business. The general secretary of the University and College Union has expressed concern over the government viewing higher education in purely instrumental terms (1). There is little doubt that the place of universities within Mandelson’s ever-expanding empire will not be good for higher education in Britain, and that free intellectual enquiry will suffer. But moving higher education to a ministry which does not even have ‘university’ in its title is simply the latest stage in an ongoing erosion of the idea of the university as a site of free intellectual enquiry.

A fundamental erosion of academic freedom has taken place over the past two decades. Apart from the current climate of censoriousness and intolerance on campuses – with several academics forced out of their positions recently for expressing views that have been deemed unacceptable (whatever the merits of their actual academic work and teaching) – the very idea of the worth of intellectual enquiry in its own terms has steadily lost ground. This goes beyond the question of what academics can and cannot say on campus.

Among the many recent cases of academic censorship on campuses, one of the more high-profile ones involved the lecturer Frank Ellis from Leeds University. He was suspended after telling the student newspaper that he believed that evidence showed that black people on average have lower IQ than white people. There was no suggestion that these views had in any way affected the way Ellis taught or treated his students, but Leeds students organised a petition to have him sacked. Another example is the Nobel Prize-winning DNA pioneer, James Watson, who was suspended by his US research institution, Cold Harbour Spring Laboratory, after having made similar comments to Ellis’s. Recently an administrative employee, Hicham Yezza, and a student, Rizwaan Sabir, at Nottingham University were arrested because Yezza was found to have a copy of the al-Qaeda training manual on his computer. As part of his studies, Sabir had downloaded the document from the US Department of Justice and asked Yezza to print it out for him.

There are plenty more examples of the current climate of censoriousness and intolerance in academia, including the UK National Union of Students’ ‘no platform’ policy, campaigns to boycott Israeli academe, the Oxford University students who tried to stop an Oxford Union debate between the British National Party leader Nick Griffin and Holocaust denier David Irving. Or the less well-known but disgraceful example of spiked’s own Nathalie Rothschild being sounded out to speak at a Greenwich University debate on the veil and then being disinvited as it was felt that, because she has a Jewish name, she might cause offence if she spoke about a ‘Muslim issue’ (see No Platform for anyone called Rothschild, by Nathalie Rothschild).

There are two main points to be made about this general climate of intolerance and censoriousness. Firstly, this is no top-down ideological or political campaign, or part of any kind of ‘battle of ideas’. More often than not these are ‘bottom up’ campaigns, led by students or staff. Their arguments generally centre on the importance of avoiding offence, being respectful and protecting vulnerable people. While such reasoning appears positive and progressive on the surface, it is in fact deeply conservative and reactionary.

As an academic, I believe that it is right to argue against these trends in universities and in favour of free speech and the right to express views that other people might find offensive and unpleasant. However, I do not believe that these are specifically academic problems; rather they are part of a broader social and political climate of censoriousness, and people do not suddenly become denuded of all broader social and political influences when they step through the door of a university. Therefore, although I will always argue against them in my academic life, I do not think these are trends that can be resolved in the academic sphere.

On the other hand, what an academic can write and discuss is bizarrely free in a way which I suspect would have been odd 40 years ago. In my field of international relations, as long as it is framed in a certain academic way and engages with contemporary debates, we can more or less write (and publish) whatever we want about the government, human agency, terrorism, sexuality, and so on. We can use whatever theoretical framework we want; journals are packed with so-called radical Marxist analysis. Governments and institutions even pay for academics to slag them off. For example, when I did my PhD I was involved in a group funded by the European Union, which addressed security in Europe. Most people in the group were highly critical of many EU policies, such as immigration controls.

However, there is something very specific going on in universities which directly erodes academic freedom, or rather erodes that which must be prior to any conception of academic freedom. This is the very idea of the value of free intellectual enquiry. This is being eroded by the very specific way in which academics and university departments are funded, monitored and measured. Academics for example no longer just do research; they have ‘research outputs’, a specific number or journal articles or books that they must publish in a given time in order to meet the targets established by the government’s ranking system for universities, the Research Exercise Framework (REF). This is used so that the government can measure how good a university department is according to the government’s own, pre-set criteria.

Moreover, under the REF, we must now be able to demonstrate the ‘impact’ of our work, to show how our research affects society and policy, and the extent to which we are engaging ‘stakeholders’ (whoever they are). The REF also demands that each department meets targets (set by the university) for getting research grants from government funding bodies. Again, if we apply for funding from government bodies, such as the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) or the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRB), we must be able to show in advance both the social impact – are we engaging ‘stakeholders’? – and policy relevance of our work. Collaborative work that is cross-disciplinary is highly recommended.

All well and good, you might think. Academics salaries are after all covered by the taxpayer, so should they not need to prove their worth? And if academics receive funding from the government, should they not need to prove that they are doing something useful? The answer is not straightforward. Most academics working in social sciences do want their work to have ‘social impact’, by which I mean that broadly they believe their work is meaningful and important to furthering knowledge and understanding in their field. However, academic research in social sciences, arts and humanities – engaging with the world we live in, which we have made and which we remake every day – is not something that can necessarily ‘prove’ its value in the immediate and measurable way the way that the government demands.

For instance, on a practical level, some research and theoretical analysis might be way ahead of its time; it can be unpopular and go against fashionable approaches to society. And who can say what analysis will be useful to a researcher in 20 years’ time or predict what might come to provide a valuable insight into something? There are things that humans should do and think about which cannot be measured and accounted for as if they are selling a product. Scientific research, or research about society, history or culture, cannot be quantified in that way.

Collaborative work in the social sciences is often excellent. Indeed, often in social sciences the strict division between disciplines is itself irrational. However, academic collaboration must be a genuinely intellectual process whereby people work together because they want to and find it useful, not simply because it is more likely to please the grant-giving bodes. As English professor Peter Barry recently argued in a blistering critique of the recent AHRC consultation document on the future direction for funding: ‘The document uses the jargon of government communications, with “strategies”, “priorities” and “communities” on almost every page. There is little sense that the AHRC has a voice of its own that would ever dare to speak truth to power. Responses are invited to 19 specific questions, but all seem to assume acceptance of the AHRC agenda of penning research into centrally controlled thematic areas investigated by collaborative groups of researchers willing to abandon the traditional foci of their disciplines and happy to work within short-term notions of “impact” and “knowledge transfer”. (2)

The old conceit of the academy speaking ‘truth to power’ is utterly eroded, with academic research turned into policy-driven exercises. The idea of intellectual enquiry no longer has any value in itself, as an intellectual and creative human endeavour to investigate or engage with the social world, but can only be measured in terms of its social impact. This instrumentalisation of research is philistine. The barbarians are not at the door of the ivory tower; they are already in the wardrobes tearing up the clothes. Mandelson’s Raj is simply the latest stage of the instrumentalisation of research.

These are the fundamental academic limits to free speech today. It is not so much an enforcement of limits on what may or may not be said, but a fundamental erosion of what intellectual enquiry and engagement really are. This is an erosion of what must come before academic freedom, an acceptance of the value of intellectual enquiry about the social world in itself. It is this crushing bureaucratisation of academic life, the undermining of the very idea of intellectual enquiry as an end in itself, that represents the real erosion of academic freedom.

However, this is not an instrumentalisation of knowledge for strategic political or even economic purposes. We are not living Nazi Germany or America during the early Cold War, when the US government funded all sorts of international relations centres and foundations in top universities to further a specific ideological outlook. Critics often interpret these changes in academia as a kind of ‘neo-liberal’ commodification of education, but this is to grasp only the surface appearance without understanding the underlying dynamic. The actual content of academic research is broadly irrelevant to the government. In fact, it is the absence of any strategic or political understanding of the value of knowledge and research that means it must be bureaucratically quantified and measured. And this must be understood in the broader context of social and political changes in contemporary society that have undermined the idea of education and knowledge, in universities as well as in primary and secondary schools.

This also means that for many academics, while they might complain about some of the obvious problematic implications of the REF itself, there is not much discussion about this erosion of the idea of free and non-quantifiable intellectual enquiry. Many colleagues indeed are more than happy to work for the government; indeed, a complaint that I have heard is that academics are not invited often enough to do policy work for the government. But of course academics are just people living in society, like everyone else. So if we do not, in society at large, have a sense of the value of knowledge and education for its own sake, then neither will academics.

Tara McCormack is lecturer in international politics at the University of Leicester.

Previously on spiked

Tim Black reckoned that with the modern university, you get what you pay for. Dennis Hayes argued that freedom is not an academic discussion. Emily Hill detected a degree of small-mindedness at British universities. Having accepted the marketisation of higher education,James Panton argued, critics of top-up fees lost the argument. Edward Hall described how students helped to undermine industrial action by British university lecturers. Or read more at spiked issue Education.

(1) UCU comment on new Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 5 June 2009

(2) These directions map out a one-way road into service, not open inquiry, Times Higher Education, 16 April 2009

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Topics Free Speech