Challenges to Academic Freedom in the UK and Beyond: Between Privatisation and Postmodernism

by Laura Walker-Beaven

Essay originally from Counterweight.

Academic freedom has faced numerous challenges over time. In the UK, a 1963 report on higher education regarded the greatest threat to academic freedom as being political influence. Recently, the debate surrounding academic freedom has been resurrected, as threats to freedom of speech appear to emerge from within academia itself. In December 2020, Civitas published a report on academic freedom in UK universities, which reviewed incidents of speech censorship between 2017 and 2019. At universities across the UK, Civitas observed instances of speech restrictions and censorship by way of restrictive campus speech codes, instances of no-platforming, and ‘cancel culture’ petitions and letters. Other think tanks and advocacy organisations have similarly expressed concern over the reported decline of academic freedom in universities in the UK and beyond (see UCU; Policy Exchange; Heterodox Academy; Gallup; Woman’s Place UK).

Of course, some deny the existence of a free speech crisis, often claiming that right-wing speakers have fabricated it in order to protect their ability to continue espousing questionable views on university campuses (see Fowles; Smith). These critics, however, fail to consider the wealth of literature coming from left-leaning academics and journalists also discussing the threats to academic freedom. For instance, the Harper’s Letter, which argues in favour of protecting free and open debate, counted Noam Chomsky, Salman Rushdie and Samuel Moyn amongst its signatories, indicating the bipartisan support for this cause.

Amidst this growing public concern over campus censorship, the UK government recently appointed a Free Speech and Academic Freedom Champion. As so often happens in public discourse, views on the topic are often highly polarised and attribute the “free speech crisis” at universities to various single-issue and highly politicised concerns. Instead, in this article I present some of the research and contemporary thought exploring potential factors that could threaten academic freedom. In an effort to avoid dichotomous thinking, this article considers different approaches to the issue and accepts that the cause of declining academic freedom is likely a complex amalgamation of the issues discussed here—and many more.

The political economy of censorship

A substantial body of literature suggests that threats to academic freedom, particularly in the UK and the US, have increased due to the neoliberal privatisation of universities. Professor Anna Traianou argues that the commercialisation of knowledge production has negatively impacted the intellectual freedom of academics. In the 1980s and 90s, a considerable shift took place in how higher education was conceptualised. The UK government began encouraging more of the population to attend university in order to compete globally in the emerging knowledge economy. According to Traianou, public sector funding for universities could not meet the resource demands incurred by the sudden influx of students. As a result, tuition fees were introduced, compelling universities to compete for funding. The Civitas report similarly proposes that privatisations have led university management to treat students as customers, producing a paradigm that prioritises customer satisfaction over academic freedom and knowledge production. Although the issue of university privatisation is undeniably multifaceted, Traianou and Civitas’ arguments make a compelling case for why public sector funding may allow universities to better pursue truth and knowledge unencumbered by the whims of their student customers.

Sociologist Adam Hedgecoe suggests that the establishment of research ethics committees in UK universities has also contributed to the threat to academic freedom. For those unfamiliar with the inner workings of universities, research ethics committees are groups of academics who judge whether proposed research projects are ethical. While the necessity of these committees may be abundantly obvious within the context of medical research, for instance, the encroachment of these into the social sciences has been the subject of many debates. In his study, Hedgecoe finds evidence that these committees tend to prioritise the reputation of the university rather than the ethics of research praxis. He theorises that sensitive or controversial research projects may be denied permission to proceed by these committees because they pose reputational risks to the university. Hedgecoe further suggests that these bodies promote academic cultures that prioritise public image over academic freedom and the pursuit of knowledge, the effects of which become even more significant when combined with the commercialisation of higher education. While Hedgecoe takes a decidedly measured approach to his research, other academics have spoken out more vocally about the potential for research ethics committees to curb academic freedom. Sociologist Martyn Hammersley, for example, has written a number of articles arguing that ethics committees tend to emphasise the individual autonomy of the research subject, but ignore that of the researcher. Hammersley also questions whether the ethics of a social sciences proposal can truly be decided by such a committee. He makes the point that this very act is hubristic in that it assumes that one could conclusively decide whether a proposal is ethical or not. Hammersley asserts that the existence of such committees “amounts not only to a bureaucratization of research but also to unwarranted restriction on the freedom of researchers”.

The Civitas report suggests that the development of equality policies, which rightly seek to protect minority students from discrimination, may go too far in limiting speech. “The university institution,” states the report, “is not created for the primary purpose of prohibiting discrimination—its founders do so for the purposes of providing places of higher education and learning”. Law professors Ian Cram and Helen Fenwick make a similar point, arguing that recent changes to UK counter-terrorism law could incentivise universities to cancel potentially controversial events. Cram and Fenwick explain that UK law changed to place duty on universities themselves to actively prevent potential instances of radicalisation and extremist content. The authors claim that the law already contained sufficient protection against such content and that including the “prevent” clause encourages universities to pre-emptively cancel or prevent campus events that may include or lead to “extremist expression”. The authors claim that this policy is excessively broad and ill-defined, potentially leading to universities restricting ideologically diverse content in accordance with the new laws.

Ideological influences

Taking a rather different approach to the works outlined above, other scholars adopt positions that correlate declining academic freedom with the rise of certain ideological movements. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, in The Coddling of the American Mind, posit that free speech in universities may be placed in jeopardy by growing cultures of “safetyism”, resulting in over-protective attitudes towards children both at home and at school. Lukianoff and Haidt argue that protecting children against adversity instils a mindset in young people that seeks to avoid discomfort or feelings of offence. Subsequently, according to the authors, when students arrive at university, they lack the cognitive toolkit required to confront ideas that fundamentally contradict their own worldviews and react by demanding “safe-spaces” free from intellectual discomfort. This, combined with privatisation, means that universities may be more inclined to compromise their commitment to academic freedom and open enquiry in order to appease their increasingly “coddled” customer base.

Others attribute the reported decline of academic freedom to the rise of postmodernism within academia. Public intellectuals Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, in their book Cynical Theories, outline the principles of postmodernism and map the journey of these concepts from their roots in the poststructuralism of Foucault and Derrida through to critical theorists in fields such as postcolonialism and, more recently, intersectional feminism, critical race theory and queer theory. They argue that these fields have formed an academic oligopoly that poses a fundamental threat to Enlightenment and scientific forms of reasoning. Although the authors touch only briefly on academic freedom directly, the implications are clear; the modus operandi of these critical social justice theories seem to be at odds with the established norms and justifications for academic freedom.

Philosopher John Sanbonmatsu makes a similar case, arguing that nihilism, stemming from the poststructuralist denial of the existence of objective truth, has come to monopolise academic thought. He claims that the effect of this has been to “blunt the critical imagination and to erode our capacity for truth-telling”. Sanbonmatsu suggests that the reason for postmodernism’s success in universities, despite opposition from almost all other ideological perspectives within the academy, has been its ability to morph and adapt into new forms. These ideas have penetrated each field of the humanities so profoundly that the term theory itself, argues Sanbonmatsu, has become synonymous with postmodern. This postmodern domination of academia, he claims, has shut down academic enquiry and “penalises those who dissent from its ideological frame”. Indeed, if Sanbonmatsu is right, the pervasive nature of this subset of academic theories could be seen as hegemonic in its monopolisation of academic thought. This could result in a “tyranny of the majority” effect in academia, whereby academics are openly discouraged from conducting research that opposes popular philosophies stemming from postmodernism. A particularly topical example of this is Kathleen Stock of Sussex University, my alma mater, who has been publicly denounced by the University and College Union for her critical stance on postmodern theories of gender and has now resigned after harassment by activist students and lack of support from colleagues. Although this, and many contemporary examples of campus censorship, may stem from postmodernism and its offshoots, the same could be conceivably said for any theory or ideology that comes to dominate academia.

This article has touched on research and thought from two approaches to the academic freedom debate. As I mentioned in the introduction, I fear the discourse on the topic tends to place the blame of declining academic freedom on single issues rather than considering its complexity, stemming as it does from the amalgamation of intersecting causes. Perhaps by broadening our view of the university free speech debate, we can better consider the steps necessary to bolster academic freedom in UK universities and beyond.

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