Academic Freedom – Under Threat?

Jul 8, 2018 by

by Tom Simpson, Jubilee Centre:

The right, without constriction by prescribed doctrine, to freedom of teaching and discussion, freedom in carrying out research and disseminating and publishing the results thereof, freedom to express freely their opinion about the institution or system in which they work, freedom from institutional censorship.  UNESCO Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel, 1997.


There is a widespread perception that academic freedom is under threat, including in the UK. Is this true, and if so, does it matter? This paper suggests some Christian principles for valuing academic freedom, before considering the evidence for whether it is under threat and what may be done about this. It argues that although academic freedom exists in name, it is being eroded in practice. While academic freedom is a relatively recent doctrine, it is of great value, and its loss matters for the public good. The paper concludes with some proposals.

Academic freedom under threat?

James Caspian, a counsellor who specialises in therapy for transgender people, was refused permission by an ethics committee at Bath Spa University to investigate why growing numbers of people are choosing to ‘detransition’. This was on the grounds that the resulting material could be ‘detrimental to the reputation of the university’.[1]

Peter Ridd is an Australian marine scientist who has publicly questioned whether the blanching of coral on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is due to climate change or is a naturally occurring, cyclical event. He has been sacked by James Cook University for alleged breaches of the university’s code of conduct.[2]

Bruce Gilley published an article titled ‘The Case for Colonialism’ in Third World Quarterly. It was withdrawn after he and the journal editor received death threats, in the context of a whirlwind of professional opprobrium.

The National Union of Students in the UK maintains a list of proscribed organisations which it forbids its members to share a platform with during a panel discussion, and it authorises local branches to extend that list.[3] Peter Tatchell fell foul of this policy, with an NUS officer at Canterbury refusing to be part of a panel with him, denouncing Tatchell as ‘racist’ and ‘transphobic’.[4]

Spiked Online ranks UK universities’ commitments to free speech, according to a red-amber-green system. For 2017, the median university is ranked red, meaning that it has banned or actively censored ideas on campus. Only seven of 115 are ranked green.[5]

In the wake of such incidents, there is a growing public narrative of crisis in academia, whereby there is a culture of conformity of opinion and a loss of freedom to challenge received wisdom through research, writing and teaching. A counter-narrative argues that proponents of academic freedom, like advocates of freedom of speech, wish merely to be noxious and unprofessional without consequence. Before evaluating whether either is right, this paper first turns to think through what a Christian’s attitude to academic freedom should be.

Read here

See also: Who let the thought police invade our universities? By Julie Bindel, unherd

Universities warned of ‘creeping segregation’ as Sheffield launches LGBT-only student halls, by Luke Mintz, Telegraph

Rise of the new fundamentalism – in deepest Oxford, by Jane Kelly, The Conservative Woman



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