Universities and academic freedom in the age of Brexit

Me, corrupting young minds yesterday

Academic freedom isn’t the kind of subject that comes up very often in the UK. I would say it’s benign neglect, but actually it’s just neglect: no-one really seemed to fight that fight and so things just trundled on. We’d watch events in Turkey, Hungary or the US, sigh or tut and then get on with things here, where nothing really changes.

As such, the past week has been a bit of a wake-up call.

The short version runs like this. A Conservative MP, part of the Whip’s office, wrote a couple of weeks ago to all university vice-chancellors, asking for a list of names of ‘professors working on European affairs, with particular reference to Brexit’. He also asked for links to syllabuses and to any online teaching materials.

About a week later this broke in public, with VCs accusing the MP of ‘mcCarthyism’ and ‘witch-hunts’: his own unwillingness to speak publicly about his intentions for this material only gave further to people’s suspicions.

As much as the government disowned the MP’s actions, the response from academic quarters gave a perfect opportunity for sections of the press to lay into the ‘liberal brain-washing’ that apparently goes on in universities: I’ll pass on linking to such pieces, but if you want to find them, then I’d look in the right-wing press.

At the root of this is a basic talking at cross-purposes. Universities (and academics) feel very concerned these days about their position: their general situation is ever more precarious, be that in terms of students, funding, research or the role they play in society. In their eyes, this all looked like an attack on their core values. I’ll put my hand up on this too: I’m not normally one to sign public statements, but I did so as Treasurer of UACES, an association that was very much in the front line of all this.

But from the perspective of those making the charges, the aim is not academic freedom per se, but rather an opportunity to further weaken the position of universities at a time when they seem to be rather unhelpful in their instance on evidence-led debate and discussion, rather than just taking what we might call here a party line.

Brexit is foremost in those issues, but across a whole range of societal questions, universities have been in the habit of speaking truth to power and – worse still – of encouraging students to think for themselves. Speaking personally, I love having different views in my classes, because it forces everyone to reflect more on why they think what they do, rather than just it being there.

Unfortunately, it’s all too easy for those kinds of values to tip into – or to be taken as – defensiveness and tantrums, as if academics think of themselves as somehow better than the rest of society. I didn’t actually see the form of words ‘if you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear’ this past week, but I feel as though that has been the undertone.

The basic problem here is trust, or rather its absence. The past couple of years have seen some very divisive debates in British politics and suspicions run rife. This bothers me for a whole range of reasons, which I hope will be obvious, but perhaps the main one is that in an environment like this, the normal checks and balances on public debate get ever weaker.

The difficulty of not wrestling pigs* is that one runs the risk of seeming aloof and disconnected. The answer then has to be that while we should stick to our fundamental academic values – evidence, openness, reflection – we should also redouble our efforts to take our work out to the world. Too often, we see the academic community as everyone we need to talk to about what we do. We need to get out more.

Of course, if you’re reading this then you’re already part of the way there: you’re interested in teaching, and what’s more teaching that’s focused on students, so precisely the kinds of things that are being talked about. But there’s a world beyond the classroom, a world that we can offer something to. As I noted in a very different context recently, if you don’t make an image of yourself, then others will do it for you.

One final thought on all this: it’s important to retain a sense of perspective in all this. Compared to the assaults on colleagues in other countries, this is minor. That’s doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter, but it should highlight the need to assert ourselves now and to make the case for the value of what we do and what we contribute to society.


  • As the saying goes, they like it and you’ll get covered in mud.

One thought on “Universities and academic freedom in the age of Brexit

  1. I think the actual proverb is: “Don’t wrestle with pigs. It only pisses off the pig and you get covered in mud.” More appropriate.

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