Academic freedom in a modern democracy
As readers of this blog will know – and as you can see in more detail in the two posts below this one – concern has been expressed in Ireland by a number of university and college staff about the future of academic freedom. Speakers at a special meeting in Dublin last weekend on this topic voiced their fears that economic pressures, government policies and university management priorities might conspire to lead to a change in the terms of employment of university faculty, and that the nature of this change could compromise, erode or even abolish academic freedom, notwithstanding the protection afforded it by section 14 of the Universities Act 1997. This section provides:
‘A member of the academic staff of a university shall have the freedom, within the law, in his or her teaching, research and any other activities either in or outside the university, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions and shall not be disadvantaged, or subject to less favourable treatment by the university, for the exercise of that freedom.’
This may seem to many to be a very strong statement of protection, but some academics have voiced fears that it was being eroded by various pressures and could potentially be amended or even repealed in legislation now expected to reform higher education.
The concerns expressed by those attending the meeting in Ireland are not unique. An essay collection recently published in America suggests that the academic community is ‘bullied by corporate interests, saddled by the need to curb its rhetoric to match national political agendas, and pressured by the military.’
The main case for academic freedom is that it ensures that scholarship and teaching can support dispassionate debate, unbiased research and analysis and the dissemination of insights that may be unpopular or that someone would like to suppress. The problem for the academy, however, is that this case often looks to the public like special pleading for a group of employees who are, so the argument goes, already uniquely privileged and who sometimes use this privilege to ward off challenges to the quality of their performance. Recent letters to the editor of the Irish Times newspaper illustrate this wider public scepticism, as did a strongly-worded contribution from the floor made at the Dublin meeting by one non-academic participant.
In my view it is right and appropriate to defend academic freedom, because the intellectual integrity of all universities would be fatally compromised if this ideal were to be abandoned or put at risk. But it is also important that those making the case for it do not present it as an argument against change overall, or an argument against the accountability of the academic profession. Academic freedom is a complex concept, and it is not necessarily easy to state what added ingredient it contains beyond the right of free speech available to all citizens. But if these issues are taken into account and addressed sensitively, then academic freedom should be defended as being important, positive, enlightening and liberating for society as a whole.