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Academic freedom is withering away as scholars shun controversy

  • A collection of essays by academics warns of the growing restrictions on campus debate and the advance of knowledge
  • The effects of pressure from students and government strictures are reinforced by the self-censorship of academics

Academic freedom is withering away in a culture of self-censorship among scholars, a new Civitas book written by university lecturers warns.

A reluctance among academics to push the boundaries of what can or cannot be said is undermining higher education’s historic commitment to the pursuit and transmission of knowledge.

As a result, the concept of academic freedom is ‘lying dormant’ and universities are in danger of returning to being medieval institutions, worshipping ‘at the altar of “progressive” opinion’.

The warning features in a collection of essays written by academics concerned about the increasingly restricted nature of debate on university campuses.

As well as taking issue with the government’s Prevent Duty and the increasing censoriousness of students – witnessed most notably in the Rhodes Must Fall campaign at Oxford – contributors also point to a tendency among academics to police themselves and shun controversy.

Joanna Williams, the book’s co-editor and a senior lecturer at the University of Kent, writes that ‘academic freedom has already been relinquished to myriad institutional pressures and has withered away through lack of exercise’:

‘The tendency for academics to police themselves and each other means that formal restrictions on academic freedom, although problematic, are actually rarely needed. One danger is that self-censorship becomes a routine part of academic life.

‘New lecturers quickly learn how to avoid upsetting the student-customers who pay their wages and how to please the peer-reviewers who will green-light their work for publication and them for promotion. They learn how to comply with all manner of speech codes, safe-space and anti-harassment policies.

‘Routine self-censorship not only does away with the need for too many overt restrictions on academic freedom it also reinforces an intolerance of dissent.’

Some scholars explicitly criticise the concept of academic freedom, she says, for ‘doing nothing to challenge the structural inequalities that make it more difficult for less powerful groups to have their voices heard’.

‘Knowledge advances through the freedom to provoke, cause offence and upset the status quo. There is simply no point in higher education without academic freedom.

‘Universities risk returning to being medieval institutions, only instead of paying homage to the church they now worship at the altar of “progressive” opinion.’

Williams says scholars are right to criticise the Prevent Duty because it risks turning universities into ‘agents, rather than critics, of the state’. But she warns that focusing criticism on the government’s role risks distracting attention from ‘more insidious’ restrictions on academic freedom.

‘It ignores the fact that many scholars choose to conform to a dominant disciplinary consensus rather than push the boundaries of what can and cannot be said. The easier option is to conform to institutional, disciplinary and national demands and never to venture into territory considered controversial.

‘Unfortunately this means that academic freedom is rarely exercised and lies dormant as a set of principles. The higher education sector as a whole is in danger of losing any sense of what academic freedom means and why it matters not just to individuals but to the pursuit and transmission of knowledge.

‘For academic freedom to be more than just rhetoric it must be exercised. This requires scholars to have something interesting, perhaps even controversial, to say as well as the tenacity to say it.’

The collection, titled Why Academic Freedom Matters: A response to current challenges and co-edited by Joanna Williams and Cheryl Hudson of the University of Liverpool, consists of 14 essays, by scholars and writers from a variety of disciplines.

They are: Philip Cunliffe (Senior Lecturer in International Conflict, University of Kent), Thomas Docherty (Professor of English and Comparative Literature, University of Warwick), Kathryn Ecclestone (Professor of Education, University of Sheffield), Rania Hafez (Senior Lecturer and Programme Leader for the MA Education, University of Greenwich), Dennis Hayes (Professor of Education, University of Derby), James Heartfield (author and historian), Jenny Jarvie (news and culture writer), Tara McCormack (Lecturer in International Politics and International Relations, University of Leicester), Alan Ryan (Emeritus Professor of Political Philosophy, Stanford University), Anthony J. Stanonis (Lecturer in modern US history, Queen’s University Belfast), Jason Walsh (foreign correspondent, The Christian Science Monitor) and Jane Weston Vauclair (cultural commentator and researcher).

Authors also raise concerns that:

  • Universities increasingly see themselves as businesses and ‘a corporation much like any other’.

Alan Ryan writes: ‘There has been a creeping erosion of the idea of a university as a self-governing institution in which presidents, deans and the like are seen as administrative hired help to what is in essence a workers’ cooperative, and its replacement with an image of the university as a corporation much like any other.’

Universities are now answerable to major donors and companies that pay for contract research, he says: ‘Such enterprises have never taken kindly to dissent from their employees, and there are ominous signs that British universities are heading down the track of turning disagreement into a sackable offence.’


Why Academic Freedom Matters: A response to current challenges is published by the cross-party think tank Civitas on 16 September 2016. Hard copies are available to journalists on request.

Joanna Williams is the author of Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity: Confronting the Fear of Knowledge (Palgrave Macmillan 2016) and Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t Be Bought (Bloomsbury 2012). She is the education editor of Spiked and a Senior Lecturer in Higher Education at the University of Kent.

Cheryl Hudson is University Teacher in History at the University of Liverpool. Cheryl has taught at

universities in the UK and the US and is former director of the academic programme at the Rothermere American Institute, University of Oxford.

For more information, contact Anastasia de Waal, Deputy Director, Civitas:


T: 07930 354 234

Why Academic Freedom Matters: A response to current challenges

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