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Freedom or Reputation?

Published: 9th June, 2017

Academic freedom is under attack – in Turkey, in Hungary and elsewhere. The University of Leicester’s president and vice-chancellor, in a recent article for Times Higher (How should universities respond when academic freedom is under threat? (13 May), quotes with approval European University Association president Rolf Tarrach: ‘university autonomy and academic freedom are crucial for the well-functioning of universities and higher education systems’. We agree!

But, at the same time, Professor Boyle’s ‘University Leadership Team’ is seeking to update its ‘guidelines’ for academic staff using social media. Although not yet agreed, the draft guidelines state that

The University expects staff to demonstrate conduct that is in the interest of protecting its legitimate business and academic interests; and to prevent inadvertent damage to its reputation or colleagues… staff must not bring the University into disrepute.

Although the draft guidelines stress that ‘the University maintains the right of academic staff to exercise their Academic Freedom’, at University of Leicester academic freedom extends only ‘to ensur[ing] that academic staff have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges’ (from section 8 of its Statutes).

There is nothing in the University of Leicester’s statutes or elsewhere that explicitly states we have the freedom to criticise our own employer.

Compare with UNESCO’s 1997’s statement on the subject:

Higher-education teaching personnel should have the right and opportunity, without discrimination of any kind, according to their abilities, to take part in the governing bodies and to criticize the functioning of higher education institutions, including their own, while respecting the right of other sections of the academic community to participate, and they should also have the right to elect a majority of representatives to academic bodies within the higher education institution.

The University of Leicester’s draft guidelines bluntly inform us that colleagues breaching the policy (e.g. by damaging the University’s reputation) might be subject to disciplinary action. It is, of course, a moot point which is more damaging: closing the highly-regarded Vaughan Centre for Lifelong Learning, an award-winning bookshop or internationally-recognised physics research group… or drawing attention to these actions. UCU believes that a blunt insistence on corporate reputation is incompatible with true academic freedom.

There is already very worrying evidence of the ULT’s illiberal and heavy-handed approach. It appears that some colleagues have been presented by managers with screenshots of their Facebook and other social-media profiles, for instance. Our employer is snooping on us!?

Thus we think it’s time for Paul to decide: will he defend academic freedom and allow himself to be criticised or will he allow the university he leads to become the Turkey of UK higher education?