Academic freedom “under threat” – report

A new survey of social scientists found 67% saying that academic freedom in HE is threatened, in part because of the growing influence of China and other authoritarian states

More than two thirds of UK social scientists think that academic freedom in higher education is under threat, according to a new survey.

Part of this fear stems from the rising influence of authoritarian states, such as China, says the report, jointly authored by researchers from the universities of Oxford, Exeter and Portsmouth.

Forty-one per cent of academics specialising in China said they had self-censored when teaching students from authoritarian regimes, compared to 39% for those specialising in Africa and 33% specialising in Europe. The average for all respondents was 20%.

“Concern among academics in politics and international relations could be higher because they are more exposed to sensitivities arising when teaching students from and conducting research in autocracies,” said Tena Prelec, one of the report’s authors.

“Furthermore, alongside business and law, these departments have often expanded most rapidly for both domestic and international students, perhaps creating an impression among staff that market demand trumps the maintenance of standards and academic freedom.

“This is clearest when considering the amount of private donations, which have tripled in the UK and Ireland over the past decade, while funds originating from public investment and EU research grants have decreased.”

Perhaps an impression has been created that market demand trumps the maintenance of standards and academic freedom – Tena Prelec, report author

Last March, a joint report by King’s College London and Harvard found that “China has become deeply embedded in the UK HE and research system” and argued that the government should ameliorate an “increasingly real” threat to the sector by helping universities reduce their income dependence on Chinese students.

The survey of social scientists was distributed to 25,000 academics in the UK at the end of 2020. Although the response rate was only around 6%, the team behind the report claim that the number and distribution of responses suggest that they are representative.

Among the other findings are:

  • Half of respondents said they felt their freedom to select teaching content was under threat
  • Half of politics and international scholars said their freedom to conduct research was under threat, while 39% said they thought institutional censorship was a problem
  • 73% said they did not self-censor when teaching students from autocratic states in the UK
  • 58% said the nationality of their students did not constrain class content, while 23% said it did
  • 42% said they considered freedom to select teaching content to be currently at risk in UK universities, compared to 58% among those specialising in European stages, 61% for those researching China, and 52% among those researching Africa
  • 20% said they had self-censored when teaching students from autocratic states in the UK, 73% said they hadn’t. This rose to 33% for scholars working on Europe, 39% for those working on Africa and 41% for those working on China
  • 26% of those researching Africa said they had self-censored when reporting fieldwork, 60% said they had not. For China, the figures were 22% and 64%. Again, these figures are notably different to the average response, respectively 14% and 75%
  • 6% of respondents agreed that UK universities might introduce codes of conduct to protect academic freedom in international partnerships, while 17% were opposed

The report comes as the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill makes its way through parliament, with plans to make universities liable for promoting academic freedom.

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