Top-ranked universities ‘protect academic freedom better’

The normative protection of academic freedom in United Kingdom higher education institutions is strongest at the Russell Group universities – which have the highest world university ranking positions – and weakest at the post-1992 institutions, according to a study published in Higher Education Policy*.

In the study, Terence Karran and Lucy Mallinson of the University of Lincoln examined the relationship between the opinions of university academic staff of the level of their academic freedom and their institution’s level of academic excellence, as measured by world university rankings.

The authors conclude that, in the UK context, staff in the pre-1992 universities that are ranked highest in the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings are also more likely to enjoy greater levels of academic freedom in their teaching and research and greater participation in university governance, than their counterparts in post-1992 institutions.

This suggests that a change in the governance procedures of the latter might be beneficial for both providing greater academic freedom and, thereby, improved world university rankings.

Academic freedom and excellence

In the theoretical discussion Karran and Mallinson examine the rise of university rankings and how academic freedom can be related to institutional excellence, despite the lack of a clear definition and a strong theoretical basis of the concept.

Drawing on the work of UNESCO’s Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel and the Council of Europe’s Academic Freedom Declaration, Karran and Mallinson find that the substantive elements of the concept, related to the freedom to teach and the freedom to do research, are sustained by two supportive freedoms in their discussion: self-governance and tenure.

“Self-governance consists of the right to voice an opinion on the running of the university, participate in the decision-making within the university, be able to appoint people to and dismiss them from positions of managerial authority within the university,” the authors say.

They draw strong attention to the abolition of university tenure in UK universities by the UK 1988 Education Reform Act.

An online survey on behalf of the University and College Union (UCU) aimed at UK academic staff teaching higher education courses, launched in December 2016, resulted in 2,239 responses from UCU members.

These responses were matched against data supported by THE World University Rankings. The 91 UK universities in the THE rankings were divided into five equally sized cohorts from cohort one (with the highest rankings) to cohort five (with the lowest rankings).

The survey included questions relating to academic freedom, which were scored from one (very high) to nine (very low) and were used to produce five tables of correspondence between perceived attitude towards different elements of academic freedom and ranking positions.

Relationship with ranking

The proportion of respondents in cohort one (which included respondents belonging to the highest ranked universities) reporting either very high or high levels of protection for academic freedom was 36.8%, compared to only 10.3 % in cohort five respondents (and this difference was statistically significant).

Asked to reflect on whether the protection of academic freedom for research at their institution and department had risen, fallen or remained constant in recent years, 40.4% of staff from cohort one universities, as opposed to 48.7% of staff from cohort five, either agreed or strongly agreed that there had been a decline.

But on the other end of the scale, 18.5% of the cohort one universities’ respondents either disagreed or strongly disagreed to the same question compared to only 7.5% of the cohort five respondents, almost three times lower.

Karran and Mallinson also examined if the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) since 1986 and the Research Excellence Framework (REF) established in 2014 had diminished academic freedom for research, and more than 50% of the respondents in all five cohorts either agreed or strongly agreed.

But also in this case, staff in universities in the lower ranked universities were more likely to report that the RAE and REF had limited their academic freedom for doing research, with 60.3% in cohort five either agreeing or strongly agreeing versus 52.3% in cohort one.

Reforms reducing academic freedom?

On the basis of the survey responses, Karran and Mallinson argue that these results might undermine recent university reforms by national governments that have "increased and centralised managerial control of universities and limited involvement by academics in governance by replacing them with external members appointed on the basis of their business acumen rather than an understanding of higher education”.

University World News asked Karran to expand on how university reforms worldwide might erode academic freedom.

Karran said: “Governments have become motivated to expand the supply of university education from serving a minority class elite to a majority national provision, and beyond to international ’markets’. In this context, not surprisingly, much existing research has reflected the concerns of two stakeholder groups within the academy.

“First, senior university management, harbouring a belief that market mechanisms can ensure quality and efficiency, and are essential prerequisites for ‘managing successful universities’, in the words of Michael Shattock (2010). Second, academic staff declaiming that ‘the ideas of marketisation are corrupting the university as an embodiment of public goods’, as analysed by Ronald Barnett (2011) – and decrying the steady erosion of their professional autonomy and academic freedom.”

* ‘Academic Freedom and World-Class Universities: A Virtuous Circle?’ Terence Karran and Lucy Mallinson, Higher Education Policy, 2019, 32 (397-417). Terence Karran is from the School of Education, University of Lincoln, Lincoln, United Kingdom. E-mail: tkarran@lincoln.ac.uk; Lucy Mallinson is from the Higher Education Research Institute, University of Lincoln, Lincoln, UK. E-mail: ljmallinson@lincoln.ac.uk.