Freedom and responsibility: We need equal talk about both

An expert on global higher education has called for a more balanced approach to academic freedom, saying there is sometimes too much talk in academia about freedom and not enough about responsibility – while on other occasions there is too much talk about responsibility and not enough about freedom.

Chris Brink, emeritus professor of Newcastle University in the United Kingdom and former rector of Stellenbosch University in South Africa, spoke to University World News as he prepared for his keynote speech at the forthcoming Anniversary of Magna Charta Universitatum conference.

The event, to be jointly hosted by the Magna Charta Observatory and the University of Bologna in Italy from 14-16 September 2022, has as its theme: “Universities engaging with society in turbulent times”. It will be the first face-to-face gathering for many of the university rectors and vice-chancellors since the original Magna Charta Universitatum was updated just before the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020.

There will be an official signing of the new document during the conference. University World News is the media sponsor of the event.

Responsiveness and responsibility

The original 1988 Magna Charta emphasised the classic principles of institutional autonomy and academic freedom. While these have been reaffirmed, the new document says notions of responsiveness and responsibility should also be fundamental principles for all those signing the revised Magna Charta.

Brink, who began his career in Australia and has also worked in Hong Kong, South Africa and England, questions the classic notion of curiosity-driven knowledge and what he calls the “invisible-hand” approach to disseminating research excellence to benefit society.

“Instead of discovering a solution and then looking for a problem that it solves,” Brink said, “researchers and universities should begin with a problem or societal challenge, which could be COVID or climate change, one of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) or any other big challenge facing their region or city, and work backwards to find what solutions we can offer.”

He said this approach had nothing to do with the old distinctions between pure and applied research but, instead, puts responsibility to society on an equal par with academic freedom and encourages universities to question, not just what are they good at, but also what are they good for.

“Academic freedom allows us to pursue excellence in knowledge production, but we are increasingly realising that excellence by itself is not enough because it only responds to the question of what we are good at.

“For most of the 20th century, we assumed that was good enough when politicians and society asked what we did.”

Academics followed the likes of Adam Smith, who famously argued that, in a free market, supply will meet demand and be taken care of by “an invisible hand”, and saw themselves as producers of knowledge – operating on the supply side of the knowledge economy.

“The thinking was that we shouldn’t concern ourselves much with the demand side of knowledge and that, providing we did high-quality curiosity-driven research, then society would definitely benefit in the long run.”

While there are many examples supporting this view of academic research, Brink pointed out, “the benefits of the invisible hand are slow in coming and unpredictable in nature”.

Learning from African discourses

However, things are changing and, in the concluding chapter of his latest book The Responsive University and the Crisis in South Africa, Brink argues that this is, in part, because Western academics are beginning to learn from African discourses.

“African researchers, in my view and experience, often find international higher education debates and discussions frustrating because such discussions are so imbued with the paradigms of the Global North – or, as some would phrase it, a ‘Western’ world view.”

He points to recent interviews with thought leaders on higher education conducted by the South African Human Sciences Research Council which indicated that knowledge in African universities was “re-influencing” thinking in the north, as University World News reported in April.

In an interview with Cambridge University professor Madeleine Arnot, she said African researchers without networks or writing experience face great difficulty getting their work published and that “the problems of climate change or of COVID-19 cannot be solved without academics, scientists and engineers understanding their impacts in the African setting”.

Perhaps the growing support for the UN Sustainable Development Goals is one example of this fresh thinking on academic responsibility, Brink ventured, with more and more universities beginning to say: “We’re going to concentrate on the SDG 3, 5 or 15,” or wherever they have the strongest expertise.

“They are looking at what the largest challenges around are for their region and how they can help to address them.”

No freedom without responsibility

Brink sees the notion of academic responsibility as “a very logical counterpart of academic freedom” and said: “We value academic freedom and we defend it, but on the basis that no freedom comes without responsibility.

“That means academic responsibility is an overarching umbrella term, as academic freedom is.”

Asked whether academic responsibility is similar to the impact factor introduced with some controversy to the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in the UK in 2014, Brink told University World News: “There is no tension between pure research and research impact: these are not opposites, and there is no dichotomy.

“There are very many examples of societal impact arising from pure research, both historical and recent, as shown in the impact case studies of the UK REF in 2014 and 2021 as well as the Hong Kong Research Assessment Exercise 2020.”

Brink talks with experience as he is an international member of the University Grants Committee (UGC) in Hong Kong, which he described as “buffer body” between the government and the eight public universities and which is responsible for distributing both teaching and research funds in Hong Kong.

He emphasises that international members of the Hong Kong UGC see their role as supporting the university sector and not as supporters of the government “or, for that matter, in opposition to the government”.

Among the initiatives he has backed through his role on the UGC is the development of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University international responsibility network to spread the word around the world.

Two sides of the coin

Drawing on his own varied international experience working in the marketised UK education sector as well as in post-apartheid South Africa, and his role in Hong Kong, Brink said: “Academic freedom and responsibility go together like the two sides of a coin and whatever your views are about academic freedom and institutional autonomy, there should be a corresponding conversation about responsibility.

“I would venture to suggest that, sometimes, there is too much talk in some areas about freedom and not enough about responsibility and sometimes there’s too much talk about responsibility and not enough about freedom.

“There should be equal talk about both, whether you’re in Africa, China, Europe or wherever. There should be a balanced framework.”

Brink said that, while there were “strong views in the West and North about what democracy is, sometimes we couple our notion of academic freedom with democracy while that would probably not have so much traction in China”.

So his final message is to urge the international higher education and research community to “accept there is a diversity of viewpoints” and not to rush to say that some are right and some are wrong.

“My aim is not to try and tell universities what their responsibilities are, but to make the point that each university should consciously articulate what it regards as its own responsibility to society.

“We may well arrive at different answers, but that is no bad thing. What is important is that addressing the question must not be neglected. I would propose two basic principles of academic responsibility: firstly, every university should be free to decide for itself where its responsibilities lie, and how to act on them; and, secondly, no university should neglect doing so.”

You can register for the Anniversary of the Magna Charta Universitatum conference here.

This article is part of a series published in partnership with Magna Charta Observatory. UWN is solely responsible for the editorial content.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. Follow @DelaCour_comms on twitter. Nic also blogs at