Bulletin of the European Liaison Committee, July 2006


The Relevance of Academic Freedom in the 21st Century


David Packham

Materials Research Centre,

University of Bath, U.K.


Traditional University Values

            When in 1988 the rectors (vice-chancellors)  of the leading European universities met to celebrate the ninth centenary of the University of Bologna, they issued a declaration – the Magna Charta of European Universities – reiterating a number of fundamental principles they considered necessary for the proper function of a university [1]. These included academic freedom - freedom of teaching and research – and the closely-related to the principle of university autonomy. In the words of the Magna Charta,

"To meet the needs of the world around, its research and teaching must be morally and intellectually independent of all political authority and economic power".

            These principles of academic freedom have deep roots in European culture. The University of Berlin, established in 1810 by Humboldt, is often seen as the type of the university of the modern world, with its emphasis on research as well as on teaching. No less important to Humboldt's concept were freedom of teaching and academic self-government [2].


            Karl Jaspers, as a professor deprived of his chair at Heidelberg by the Nazis, was in a good position to reflect on the relationship between a university and the state and on the requisites for the existence of a university.

            In 1946 he published a revised edition of his The Idea of the University (Die Idee der Universität) [3]. In this he gave a classic enunciation of the principles of academic freedom. He likened the position of a university in relation to the state as in some ways analogous to that of the Church. The university has power over the state, but it is the power of truth, not the power of force (p. 135). Consequently the relations between the state and the university may be tense, even marked by open conflict (p.133), but the state will (should) respect the autonomy of the university because it recognises the need "somewhere within its confines [for] pure, independent, unbiased research [to] be carried on" (p. 132). For Jaspers academic freedom must extend from research and thought to teaching (p. 141). "Any state interference with teaching cannot help violating the idea of the university" (p. 138).

            Thus for Jaspers universities have an important moral rôle within society. Without this moral dimension, they will degenerate into the functionalism of institutions merely for the training and development of specialised scientific and technical expertise [4]. Jaspers comments "No state intolerant of any restriction on its power for fear of the consequences of a pure search for truth, will ever allow a genuine university to exist" (p. 132).


Changing University Culture?

            How, at the beginning of the 21st century, do the relationships between governments in Europe and their universities match up to the ideal expounded by Jaspers and many others?

            For well over a decade governments in the United Kingdom have taken an increasingly functional, utilitarian approach to their universities. Lip service is still paid to traditional educational aims such as to "enable individuals to develop their capabilities to the highest potential levels throughout life" and "to increase knowledge and understanding for their own sake". However the practical aim of policies has been that universities should "serve the needs of an adaptable, sustainable, knowledge-based economy" [5].

            Enormous financial and political pressure has been brought to involve universities in research collaboration with industry and commerce. Such research is usually subsidised from public funds and its findings are not necessarily freely published. At the undergraduate level, the government has introduced mechanisms which can steer teaching methods and curricula under the guise of "quality assurance". Commercial involvement in the design and planning of courses is widespread and in some cases whole courses are sponsored and run by a specific industrial enterprise [6].

            Such developments are not confined to the United Kingdom. In 1999 the European Ministers of Education agreed the Bologna Declaration on the harmonisation of higher education. This is being used as a vehicle for changing the culture and values throughout European higher education. The actual text of the Declaration reflected the traditional values of a university, speaking of "the highest importance [of] Universities' independence and autonomy", and it even praised the "fundamental principles laid down in the Bologna Magna Charta Universitatum of 1988" [7]. However, the process has been developed by subsequent ministerial meetings (for example in Prague, Berlin and Bergen) and is now seen as putting universities "exclusively at the service of business" with the "adaptation of students to the workplace [as] the only objective for a university education" [8]. The "Bologna Process" can now be represented as a drive to alter the quality of higher education which aims "to deliver stronger, lasting growth and to create more and better jobs" [9].


The Postmodern challenge

            There can surely be little doubt that should developments make universities servants (rather than critics and analysts) of the ideology of the globalised  market economy, the autonomous institution, constraining the state by the "power of truth", would be destroyed: they would have degenerated into the functionalism of which Jaspers warned. However the concept of the autonomous university protected by academic freedom was largely developed in its present form in the shadow of the Enlightenment. It wears the garb of a metanarrative. Can this ideal be sustained in the light of the postmodern challenge?

            A characteristic of postmodernism is the recognition of the impossibility of obtaining neutral knowledge derived from value-free methodology; it engenders a mistrust of metanarratives (Lyotard) [10]. This has a profound effect on academic disciplines, acting both at the conscious and unconscious level, undermining our confidence by casting doubt on what seemed, until recently, to be eternal verities [11, 12].

            Among the "verities" on which doubt is cast is the traditional liberal ideal of a university enjoying academic freedom. Exponents of this tradition may speak, as Jaspers did, of "the power of truth"  and of "pure, independent, unbiased research", these are now recognised as contentious, complex concepts. Even in pure science, the concept of some ultimate truth, which will stand for all time and which is independent of the social and intellectual context from it arises, cannot be sustained [13 - 15]. University teachers are inevitably embedded in a social and economic milieu: even if they are not crudely dependent on some political authority or economic power, there is no objective point utterly outside society and culture from which they can take a truly independent stand [16].


            Do these considerations undermine the claim (expressed above) of a fundamental dichotomy between university and industry? To answer this let us briefly examine some implications of postmodernism for university education.

            Fundamental to education in a postmodern world is recognition that "knowledge is not given: it is socially sustained and invested with interests and backed by power" [17]. As knowledge is not a "given", there will be legitimate disputes within the academy, not because some advocates are "right" and others "wrong", but because they work from different, incommensurable premises. Alasdair MacIntyre [18] argues that it will therefore be necessary for the university to provide a forum for different traditions, and to become a place of "constrained disagreement" between them. This would mean that those involved in teaching and enquiry  would do so from within their particular tradition, entering into controversy with rival viewpoints. A central responsibility of the university would be "to initiate students into conflict".  

            Such a postmodern critique calls into question, not only the fundamental assumptions of free market capitalism, but a plethora of associated issues, generally-unexamined, ranging from of the ethical nature of a company's policies to the level of the directors' remuneration. It might be argued that such a critique was more subversive of industrial interests than traditional liberal ideal, with its insistence on the "moral and intellectual independence" of universities.

            At a fundamental level, the problem with "privatisation" of education, with sponsorship of courses or even of whole institutions, is not that the sponsors are private, but that they are unlikely to be open to a agonistic examination of the basis of their beliefs, and to foster a recognition of essentially provisional nature of conclusions about them. When I enquired into an institution which called itself the "British Aerospace University", it became clear that it provided no forum for a discussion of the arms trade or of the environmental consequences of aviation. Its scope was narrowly confined to the training and development of specialised scientific and technical expertise.


Academic freedom and a free society.

            The postmodern insight into the problems of obtaining neutral knowledge does not mean that all knowledge is equally reliable or unreliable. "Pure, independent, unbiased research" may be difficult or impossible to achieve, but everyone knows that deliberately biased results are easy to produce.

            The abuse over many years of collaborative research by the tobacco industry is now well documented [19, 20]. Brown and Williamson and BAT used special "public science" contracts with universities which were designed to research areas where evidence might be found which showed tobacco in a better light, and which could then be used to create controversy over "alleged" dangers of smoking. The source of funding for this research was not disclosed.

            Unfortunately the tobacco industry is not the exception. The abuse of confidentiality agreements in university research by parts of the pharmaceutical industry [21 - 23] has become such a scandal that the late Pope was moved to criticise their practices, warning that "The very ethics of research can be undermined .... when financial groups claim the right to permit the publication of research data depending on whether or not such data are in the interests of the groups themselves" [24].

            Trustworthy knowledge is essential to the functioning of the state: public health and consumer protection as well as political discourse and legal disputation are among the areas where it is vital. Universities have traditionally provided such knowledge, but their capacity to do so is being undermined by the commercialisation of academia.


            Thus academic freedom is far from some arcane "ivory tower" concept, with few practical implications outside academic life. Like the independence of the judiciary and the freedom of the press, it is one of the bulwarks of a free society. It is one of the first freedoms to be attacked by a state when it moves towards absolutism. This was evident with the rise of Fascism in the 1930s. Academic staff were purged from universities on racial and ideological grounds; many were dismissed "on the pretext of insufficient adaptation to the political outlook of the government" and suffered physical abuse or even of murder [25].

            This is not a problem of the past which disappeared with the defeat of Fascism and the collapse of Communism. The World University Service (W.U.S.) has extensively catalogued "a growing tendency to undermine, restrict or suppress academic freedom and university autonomy" in dozens of countries, with poor human rights records, throughout what was sometimes termed the "free world" [26, 27]. During 2001 the group Human Rights Watch reported many instances of academics being punished for exercising their right and responsibility to question and criticise their societies, and even of armed force being used to silence academic critics [28].

            Violation of basic freedoms is not confined to third world dictatorships. There has been increasing alarm at the tenor of recent anti-terrorist legislation in the U.K. In the United States, there are reports of academics being harassed for stimulating debate which questions the government's attitude to the "war on terror" [29]. A group of American academics has issued a Statement in Defense of Academic Freedom in which they "call on all members of the academic community to speak out strongly in defense of academic freedom and civil liberties, not just as an abstract principle but as a practical necessity" (emphasis added) [30].


            In conclusion, we should ponder Karl Jaspers' words:

"No state intolerant of any restriction on its power for fear of the consequences of a pure search for truth, will ever allow a genuine university to exist".




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