Beyond Academic Freedom

I didn’t mean to troll the Council for the Defence of British Universities’ annual general meeting. I am not a member and was gatecrashing really. A friend had sent me the Council’s recent position paper on academic freedom, which I responded to with a longish critical email. On the basis of this, my friend sent me the invite, suggesting that I take up my concerns with the people that wrote it.  

I meant to just listen, not storm into the debate like a bull in a china shop. But when I heard the same old arguments about professional autonomy, how this was a public good and that the public should appreciate and engage more with academic research, I couldn’t help myself. After posting a couple of “challenging” remarks into the chat during the presentations, the chair asked me to begin the discussion by explaining myself.  

“Right-wing intellectuals are using academic freedom to promote their ideas, which are, essentially, anti-democratic,” I began. “They are using academic freedom to promote ideas like “Cultural Marxism”, which is basically a fascist concept, and is designed to shut down criticism. Its purpose is to undermine the enlightenment ideas like equality and diversity that the modern concept of academic freedom is based on.” This is hugely problematic, I added, and requires a political response. 

“Right-wing intellectuals are using academic freedom to promote their ideas, which are, essentially, anti-democratic.”

The problem with the CDBU’s concept of academic freedom, I continued, is that it is purely negative, in the sense that it describes a right to freedom from interference from managers and the state, and idealistic, because it imagines that rights are an adequate response to or replacement for political power and organisation.  

In the context of the government’s intensifying authoritarianism – represented in this context by the Higher Education (Academic Freedom) Bill, which will give the Office for Students the right to intervene if it thinks academics or students are “no platforming” people just exercising their free speech rights, like neo-fascists, for example – we need to think about political and social responsibility, not abstract rights.  

“It is, or should be, the responsibility of academics, to not just hide behind academic freedom, but actually go out into the world and redress some of the alienation that is structurally institutionalized by universities and academic freedom,” I argued. “Saying that the public should engage with academic ideas is just not good enough.” 


It’s not that people aren’t interested in ideas, I said. I pointed to the research that followers of QAnon engage in as an example. Just because it is a conspiracy theory and is linked to all manner of problematic and dangerous practices – not to mention Trump’s neo-fascist political project – this should not detract from the fundamental fact that people are searching for truth, albeit in the wrong places.  

The problem is that methodology – i.e., how truth is arrived at, and how to distinguish knowledge and fact from falsity and sophistry – is now the domain of YouTube algorithms and Facebook advertising metrics. Despite the commodification of higher education, which is supposed to democratise these skills, the difference between those that can tell “alt-facts” from true facts, truth from “post-truth” will increasingly come down to who can afford a decent education.

And it’s not like the ivory tower is squeaky clean either. Its walls are stained by the blood of millions of colonial subjects whose slavery was rationalized by pseudo-scientific theories of evolutionary ladders, craniology and, well, just “race” itself. These pseudo-sciences of “natural” inequality keep mutating into historically acceptable forms – IQ, sociobiology, behavioral economics – and continue to serve a function in rationalizing minority rule and authoritarianism.  

The academy also still serves its primary historical purpose of reproducing the capitalist system. We are all hopefully aware of the role that science played in the Cold War. But what have the professors done to prevent the shaping of research and teaching by metrics for the purposes of economic growth, let alone fight the creeping marketisation of the English higher education system? 

The concept of academic freedom currently hides more than it defends, I say.  

Time to Wake Up

I was the preverbal cat among the pigeons. To be fair, my remarks (which have, admittedly, been a little polished for the purposes of this article) produced a really good debate. I won’t go into detail, just in case I get anyone in trouble, and after all, I wasn’t really invited.  

There was a really interesting discussion of autonomy, sparked by my accusation that the CDBU position adds nothing to the government version of academic freedom, which, it in fact protects for the first time in primary legislation. The idea behind the CDBU intervention, it seems, is to articulate a “bottom up” – i.e. professoriate-led – concept of academic freedom that can then be adopted by institutions, removing the need for the government to intervene.  

As I said, very naïve. But the point was well made that academic freedom is currently more threatened by managerialism than government intervention, while “autonomy” is in most cases used as a cover for corporate universities basically doing whatever the f**k they want.  

“Academic freedom is currently more threatened by managerialism than government intervention, while “autonomy” is in most cases used as a cover for corporate universities basically doing whatever the f**k they want.”

Actually, I’ll name one name of my responders, Terrence Karran, who presented insights from his brilliant study, with Lucy Mallinson, on “Academic Freedom in the UK”. Commissioned by the University and College Union in 2016, the wide-ranging study found that an overwhelming majority of respondents agreed that academic freedom within their institutions had declined in recent years, with “commercialization” and metrics driven assessment regimes like the REF, being identified as the cause.  

Furthermore, bullying, psychological pressure and self-censorship are all too commonplace within higher education institutions that are supposed to encourage their staff to pursue teaching and learning within an academic environment typified by the tolerance of others’ opinion and beliefs, and freedom of expression, Karran and Mallinson found.  

These victims of bullying are less likely to be the disgruntled academic “edgelords” unable to promote their reactionary views, like Jordan Peterson, for example, than the proletarianised masses of researchers and teachers under relentless pressure to deliver research funding income, 5* papers, bestselling books, first-class grades for every student, 100% student satisfaction scores and graduate employment outcomes.  

Education as a Way of Life

As I argue in my new book, The Method of Democracy (apologies for my academic pelotonry – see Composting Richard Hall), the conditions inside universities today more closely resemble teaching factories than ivory towers.

Taking Taylorist rationalisation techniques to extremes that Mike Ashley could only dream of, a new generation of UK university CEOs (yeah you heard right), egged on by the Tories, are reimagining higher education institutions as multi-national corporations producing education and research commodities for a competitive global market.  

The point is, academic freedom, if it still exists at all, is under attack from all directions, from outside and inside the university. 

Understandably, academics feel like the walls are closing in. Their instinctual reaction is to defend academic freedom, drawing on historic conventions like professional autonomy, self-governance, tenure, public goods, and so on. But I think this is the wrong move, is self-defeating and plays right into the hands of the marketisers, right-wingers and neo-fascists.

If academics want to save academic freedom, then they need to fight alongside the public against privatization, restoration neoliberalism and rising neo-fascism. They need to open up practices, methods and technologies of inquiry (including the university itself) to the public and build with those suffering and already fighting a new form of collective intelligence. Only then will we have real freedom and democracy for all.