Academic Freedom Bill needed to protect researchers from political discrimination, says thinktank

A new report argues that UK academics are “significantly more left-leaning” than in the past and that this imbalance forces self-censure among academics who support right-wing views

A new Academic Freedom Bill is needed to protect researchers’ independence, which is under threat from political discrimination, a new report from Policy Exchange has said.

The new report – Academic freedom in the UK: Protecting viewpoint diversity – concludes there is “widespread support for discrimination on political grounds in publication, hiring and promotion”, following a survey of 820 academics by polling company YouGov.

The report argues that UK academics are “significantly more left-leaning” than in the past and that this imbalance forces self-censure among academics who support Brexit, right-leaning political parties or gender-critical feminist theories. The disproportionate number of left-leaning academics means right-leaning academics are more likely to face structural discrimination, it continued.

According to the polling, 50% of right-leaning social science and humanities (SSH) academics self-censor and 72% of current Brexit-supporting academics either do not think, or are unsure if, Leavers are comfortable expressing their beliefs. A third of academics, for example, would avoid hiring a known Leave supporter or mark down a grant bid if it took a right-wing perspective, the poll suggested.

The authors claim their research suggests that one in four current SSH academics were willing to “countenance a dismissal campaign” against a scholar undertaking controversial research in one of four areas.

Examples of controversial study include “research showing that greater ethnic diversity leads to increased societal tension and poorer social outcomes”, “research showing that the British empire did more good than harm”, “research showing that children do better when brought up by two biological parents than by single or adoptive parents”, and “work showing that having a higher share of women and ethnic minorities in organisations correlates with reduced organisational performance”.

However, in all four cases, only between six and 13% of academics were willing to back campaigns to fire academics who advocate unpopular views.

The research uncovered some evidence that academics may choose to only socialise with those that share the same opinions: 54% said they would not feel comfortable sitting next to a known Leave supporter at lunch, although only 14% expressed discomfort, compared to a high percentage of ‘don’t know/unsure’ responses.

Despite these findings, the authors concluded there was no evidence to suggest academics discriminate more than other professions or that left-leaning academics discriminate more than right. In fact, YouGov’s survey actually revealed that right-leaning academics are more likely to discriminate against a left-leaning academic during recruitment than the reverse.

Under the Department for Education’s (DfE) recently announced higher education restructuring regime, Michelle Donelan said universities could only apply for loans if they demonstrated “commitment to academic freedom and free speech”.

Report recommendations

Legislative recommendations include the ministerial appointment of a new director for academic freedom to the senior echelons of the Office for Students. The appointee would use “ombudsman powers” to enforce university compliance with academic freedom and freedom of speech, compile an annual report on the state of academic freedom and freedom of speech, and provide legal assistance to academics who claim to have been discriminated against.

The proposed bill would also commission the OfS to investigate complaints and potential violations both in universities and in student unions even in the absence of a formal complaint.

The OfS would be obligated to collect data for universities on academic freedom of speech, including a summary of instances of alleged violations, speaker events, and resources spent on protecting freedom of speech. If found  in violation of the freedom of speech statutory duties, higher education providers should be made liable for damages and could incur fines from the OfS.

To review the OfS’s championing of academic freedom, the Department of Education should establish a team to assess the regulator, the authors recommended.

The review’s authors also proposed legislative clarifications to the Equality Act that would protect academics who express views which might, at present, contravene rules around discrimination. In another change to the Equality Act, academics would be entitled to some of the same protections from workplace discrimination as employees with protected characteristics.

A new Academic Freedom charter organisation ­– similar to the Athena SWAN charter – could award kitemarks to recognise individual departments’ commitment to freedom of speech, the report suggests, and student views on political discrimination should be elicited through new questions on the National Student Survey. Information collected from universities could be collated into new ‘freedom of speech metrics’ on university league tables, the authors added.

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