Academic Freedom in the United Kingdom

Austerity and market logic have limited academic freedom.
By Lori Allen

Obstacles to academic freedom in the United Kingdom are encountered in more and less obvious ways, all of which are sinister. From the blatant surveillance of Muslim students, the censorship of scholars discussing Palestine, and the mainstreaming of racism and Islamophobia in a Tory-led Brexit climate to the slow stifling of intellectual agendas by audit exercises requiring that academic departments demonstrate profitable “impact,” academic freedom is under threat, for faculty members and for students. Like other rights and democratic principles, academic freedom is always at risk everywhere, because critical thought, imagination, and informed debate threaten power. There is now, however, a confluence of forces in the United Kingdom—both cultural and institutional—that should frighten anyone who values the right to question status quo inequalities. It should also embolden our efforts to protect academic freedom. As a first step, the threats must be revealed and made a matter of public debate.

In a 2017 report on academic freedom prepared for the University and College Union (UCU), an organization representing higher education faculty across the country, Terence Karran and Lucy Mallinson found that “the constitutional protection for academic freedom . . . in the UK is negligible, as is the legislative protection for the substantive (teaching and learning) and supportive (tenure and governance) elements of academic freedom.” Their study placed the United Kingdom in a comparative framework with the European Union and showed that “legal protection for four essential aspects of academic freedom—freedom to teach, freedom to undertake research, self-governance and security of employment—is noticeably weaker in the UK.” That academic freedom was not incorporated into a legal document until the Education Reform Act of 1988, which removed academic tenure and made it possible for universities to close departments and declare employees redundant—giving with one hand while taking much with the other—neatly sums up the problem: the liberal principle pronounced, but the institutional and legal mechanisms for protecting it absent.

Surveillance, Censoring, and “Prevent”

Among the most flagrant obstacles to academic freedom is the Counter-terrorism and Border Security Act of 2019, which criminalizes the expression of “an opinion or belief that is supportive of a proscribed organization” (currently including seventy-six “international terrorist organizations” and fourteen organizations in Northern Ireland). “Reckless” expression of opinions or beliefs that might encourage support of a proscribed organization is unlawful under this dangerously vague and obviously censorious act. The law has barely registered in public debate— the space for which is fast shrinking as a result of just such legislation. What has generated more public debate and pushback is the specific dimension of the law called the “Prevent Duty,” introduced in the 2015 revision of the act as part of the government’s antiterrorism agenda. It requires public institutions, including institutions of higher education, “to have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.”

The “Prevent Duty” has led universities to police course content and has had a censoring effect on the learning and classroom speech of students and teachers as well as on events featuring public speakers. Government guidance for higher education institutions indicates that a speaker who might likely express “extremist views that risk drawing people into terrorism or are shared by terrorist groups” should not be invited unless those risks can be “fully mitigated.” “Fully mitigating” possible risks puts some pretty strict limits on campus speech. A crystal ball and camera into the souls of others would be required to predict everything that someone is “likely” to express or to detect what other people are at “risk” of being drawn into.

Government guidance for implementation of the “Prevent Duty” lists possible signs of being vulnerable to radicalization: “Feelings of grievance and injustice; feeling under threat; a need for identity, meaning and belonging; a desire for status; a desire for excitement and adventure; a desire for political or moral change; relevant mental health issues.” So anyone who thinks about the world we’re living in, anyone but a media-anaesthetized worker-drone, may be suspect. In the words of Oxford academic Karma Nabulsi, the “bill is a Hobbesian contract meant to frighten us into surrendering our freedoms.” It also opens the door for government harassment and prosecution of people whose opinions do not align with the status quo of injustice and inequality. Does writing that sentence indicate this author’s sense of being aggrieved? Is it an expression of feelings of frustration and a sense of injustice? These are all indications of possible vulnerability to radicalization, and any UK employee of a public institution (like a university) reading these words is legally obliged to become complicit in their policing.

The law has had a chilling effect on free speech, especially on university campuses. In 2018, the Guardian reported that students at the University of Reading were told to take care when reading an essay by Marxist scholar Norman Geras, “in order to avoid falling foul of Prevent.” The university flagged Geras’s text, “Our Morals: The Ethics of Revolution,” as “sensitive” under the Prevent program. Geras’s essay discusses “by what normative principles socialists might be guided whether in judgment or in action, when it comes to revolutionary change.” The furor over the university’s condescending and repressive act did force the administration to backtrack and remove the warning attached to this essay. But this blunder exemplifies the extreme ambiguity in the law, the subjective ways it can be interpreted, and the politically specific ways it may be applied.

In an even more extreme case, the Independent reported that academics have been told that they cannot teach Milestones, written by a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and 1960s, Sayyid Qutb, because it will “encourage radicalisation.” Another example from 2017: the Glasgow School of Art “discussed flagging up a student’s artwork on the geopolitics of the Middle East to the Prevent team” and in the end refused to exhibit the installation in full because it included ISIS propaganda videos (acquired from the public domain and to be shown with warnings). Unlike the University of Reading’s semihumble acknowledgment of its mistake, administrators at the Glasgow school dug in their heels by urging students to exercise caution when it comes to “offensive” or “inappropriate” material and warning against “bringing the institution into disrepute,” reminding students that the “right to freedom of speech is not absolute.”

Limitations on free speech and academic freedom come not only from zealous campus administrators. They also come from the force of the state security apparatus. At the University of East Anglia, a student was rewarded for doing his homework in a class about fundamentalism, which included reading ISIS magazines, by a visit from the Special Branch. This kind of surveillance, in an atmosphere of uncertainty and Islamophobia, has also led to self-censorship among researchers and teachers. A PhD student canceled a conference on counterterrorism legislation, citing fears of Prevent. My colleagues worry about students spying on their lectures about Palestine, and some are reticent to have their lectures recorded for fear of reprisals for their politically “sensitive” critical lessons. A survey of more than two thousand UK academics showed that there has been a subjective experience of decline in protections for academic freedom. As one activist working with student Palestine societies reported, students have “a strong feeling that using words like ‘justice’ and ‘human rights’ will get them put on a watch list.” The National Union of Students declared in its 2015 conference proposals, “PREVENT and the Government’s ‘anti-extremism’ agenda have been used to create an expansive surveillance architecture to spy on the public and to police dissent.”

Assessing Risk, Curtailing Controversy

Another bureaucratic measure in place to enforce the Prevent strategy is the risk-assessment register that universities require from those organizing public events. In its policy document on public speakers, the University of Edinburgh, for example, tries to balance a respect for free speech with the demands imposed by the Counter-terrorism and Security Act and related guidance that “requires the University to strengthen its policies and procedures around the management of events and external speakers.” Highlighting the university’s “statutory duties . . . to prevent people being drawn into terrorism,” the policy indicates that the university can impose “certain conditions” on event organizers and may cancel events.

This is what took place at the University of Southampton in 2015, when a conference on Israel and international law was twice prevented from happening. The first time the university called on the ever-present concern with “health and safety” rather than Prevent doctrine to claim as its justification “concerns that the safety of staff, students and visitors could not be guaranteed.” The Southampton academic organizers, Oren Ben-Dor (an Israeli critical of that country’s discriminatory practices) and Suleiman Sharkh, believed the cancellation was a result of opposition from a range of lobbying groups and intervention by politicians.

The second time they tried to hold the conference, the university demanded £24,000 to cover security costs. Ben-Dor said this would mean that “‘only rich people can run controversial conferences’ and that ‘any thug out there can silence’ them simply by threatening to hold a demonstration.” A High Court judgment ruled against Ben-Dor and Sharkh, contending that “the conference largely represented one point of view and did not achieve the original proposed balance,” and that “the full list of speakers had not been provided until early March and included controversial speakers.” The judge’s proclamation that Southampton was a bastion of academic freedom carries rather less weight coming from someone who justifies exclusion of events that host “controversial speakers.”

The Palestine Exception

The demand for “balance” is a favorite justification for curtailing academic debate when it comes to events on Palestine and a card that administrators disproportionately play against academics of color who support Palestinian rights. In 2017 Ayça Çubukçu, a Turkish scholar at the London School of Economics, untenured at the time, was banned from chairing a meeting titled “Palestinian Rights, the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Movement, and Transnational Solidarity.” The offense that caused her exclusion was having signed petitions “relating to the topic of discussion.” The LSE management replaced her with a (white, male) professor who was deemed adequately “neutral.” This action was followed by a similar intervention at Cambridge University, where an event on Palestine that included Omar Barghouti (founding member of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement) was to be chaired by Palestinian anthropologist Ruba Salih. The university replaced her with the (white, male) university director of communications, an “independent” chair who “does not have the same political views as the other panelists.”

After Salih argued that the ban could potentially amount to libel and defamation, the university issued an apology and recognized that no evidence existed to support the claim that she would not ensure a democratic debate, allowing all views to be expressed. This did not, however, stop the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), a think tank, from defending Cambridge’s removal of Salih. The HEPI “practical guide” for university free-speech policies dismissed the outcry from hundreds of students and academics generated by Salih’s replacement. Objection to this interference was merely misinterpretation of the university’s action “as an attempt . . . to change the nature of the proceedings.” Salih forced the point again, and although HEPI posted the Cambridge acknowledgment on its website, it did not change the guide itself.

Audit Exercises and Frameworks

The stifling of academic freedom takes place in somewhat stealthier and more insidious ways through reductions in public financing for universities and university students, especially since the introduction in the 1990s of the higher education audit that happens every six years or so. The material and managerial effects are legion. Once called the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), now called the Research Excellence Framework (REF), it is currently also implemented alongside its evil twin, the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).

These auditing exercises seek to rank universities and departments according to specific criteria. How well a university fares in this ranking process determines funding levels from government-sponsored research councils, including for student scholarships. Important among the criteria by which universities are judged in the REF are “research environment” and “impact.” The latter, defined as “an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia,” must be measurable and provable, with a straight line drawn from the research and the (preferably economically beneficial) change it has caused in the world. The government justifies this exercise as a means of ensuring accountability for public investment in research and of providing evidence of the benefits of government investment in research.

At most universities, preparing submissions to the REF becomes an all-consuming process, which has led universities to hire multiple administrators and consultants who try to massage their REF submissions and “game the system.” It has also led to the crystallization of a burdensome new faculty administrative role, the “REF officer,” who in many departments is responsible for conducting internal rankings of colleagues’ research and determining which pieces of research are submitted to the REF.

One criterion by which university departments will be judged for their teaching in the TEF is the size of their graduates’ income, with those making money outside Her Majesty’s taxing system recorded as a stigmatizing goose egg. So universities are marked down for giving UK students the tools to thrive without prioritizing income, and downgraded for opening their imaginations to making a living off the island. Although this is not a direct attack on academic freedom, it does provide universities an incentive to bring in certain kinds of students and give them a certain kind of entrepreneurialism-focused education.

Through all these vigorous auditing calisthenics, nationalist neoliberal logic defines merit. Educational benefits are measured according to market logic and largely reduced to issues of employability and profitability. This occurs within a context in which universities employ more nonacademic than academic staff, with managerial and professional staff having the fastest rate of growth. Under the guise of “restructuring,” managers at the University of Birmingham used austerity as a justification for shutting down its Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (which was, as LSE professor Tarak Barkawi has noted, one of the only programs for which the university was ever known in the wider world). The University of Exeter closed its chemistry department in 2006 with a similar bottom-line rationale.

Reductions in public spending also affect academic freedom. If we extend our thinking about academic freedom to include the freedom of students to learn in academic settings, the increase in tuition fees (which were £1,000 per academic year in 1998 when fees were introduced and are now capped for UK and EU citizens at £9,250 for full-time study) and cuts in maintenance grants (the government now provides loans, not scholarships) mean that only those who can pay or are willing to go into debt can pursue higher education. This disproportionately affects poorer students, as research has shown.

According to BBC reporting, ideas floated in the midst of a recently completed government-commissioned review of student finance included a suggestion that there be “an A-level [high school] grade cut-off, so that those with low grades would no longer be eligible for tuition fee loans, and so would be nudged towards cheaper vocational courses.” The Augur Commission, named after Philip Augur, the former equities broker who chaired it, recommended in its report a set of changes in government funding for higher education that would be devastating to many, especially those in the creative arts, humanities, and social sciences.

The report followed strict market logic in recommending that the government focus its funding on vocational training rather than on universities, ostensibly to match employers’ needs; that institutions whose students go on to high-paying graduate jobs be rewarded; and that an 8 percent cut in per-student resources be imposed by 2022–23. It also called on the government to adjust support for different subjects to reflect the economic and social “value” of degrees and how much those subjects cost to teach. While the commission called for a cut in university tuition fees from £9,250 to £7,500 a year, changes to the government’s loan program could double lifetime repayments by some lower-earning women graduates and reduce those by some high-earning men. Oxford professor of public policy Jonathan Wolff summarized one aspect of the report in the Guardian: “universities are expected to make ‘efficiency gains.’ Meaning what? More attempts to recruit high-fee international students, and reduced spending: freezing of posts; redundancies; smaller annual wage rises; increased casualization of teaching; and cutting student support services.” With Theresa May’s resignation, it is unclear which of the report’s recommendations will be implemented. But until the ruling party changes, the outlook is not so good.

At the level of academic research and teaching, all funding for higher education institutions through funding councils is now slightly more than half what it was in 2011–12, according to a House of Commons library briefing paper (number 7393). And according to that same paper, support for teaching through the funding councils for 2019–20 is 74 percent below the 2011–12 figure in real terms, a reduction effected by phasing out funding for humanities and social science subjects. These austere times have left academics competing for relatively fewer grants, the criteria for which now almost always include impact. Whether to induce policy-relevant research or business-growing and economy-boosting projects with entrepreneurial potential, funding bodies have turned academics into donor-driven researchers who do better if they focus on particular national priority areas, including commercialization of research. Academics can still pursue what is happily called “blue skies” thinking, but little funding is available for it amid the neoliberal attempts to transform universities into think tanks. This reorientation of higher education to donor and national economic imperatives is a risk to institutional autonomy.

Although austerity is relative, university administrators can use it as a justification for various activities that impinge on academic freedom. They refer to it as they seek ever more external funding from benefactors, which carries its own forms of influence. Administrators also use austerity and nontransparent bookkeeping to justify massive “voluntary severance” schemes, encouraging those seen as economic drains on an institution (like language instructors requiring small class sizes) out the door. The government bodies that allocate funding for higher education—tellingly housed within the Department of Business—cheer such moves and praise cuts in staffing costs.

These structural limitations on academic freedom are not as dramatic as outright censorship, but they definitely shape how and what we can research and write. At some institutions, striving for higher REF scores has led administrators to believe that a yearly internal REF is the path to success. Instead of creating the conditions in which synapses can fire and find each other (some time, some quiet, some basic security of material conditions, and a place to concentrate), we are living out Michel Foucault’s lessons, subjecting ourselves to the inner panopticon of our managerial environment.

Beyond these disciplinary maneuvers, neoliberalism in the United Kingdom has direct material effects, especially for the precarious workforce beavering away with very low wages on short-term contracts (most degradingly dubbed “fractionals” at my institution). The adjunctification of teaching in the United Kingdom passed a tipping point in 2015, when the numbers of academic staff on fixed-term or casual contracts exceeded those in permanent positions (currently 68 percent of research staff are on fixed-term contracts). UC Berkeley historian James Vernon offers this observation on the relationship between REF algebraics and casualization: “Professors hired on research only contracts to maximize the REF income of institutions [including those with prestigious research fellowships], are effectively subsidized by adjuncts on poorly paid, fixed and short-term, or even ‘zero-hour’ teaching contracts,” in which workers have no guaranteed work hours or income. As in the United States, there is no academic freedom for precarious scholars who are not sure whether they’ll be able to pay their rent.

These tugs of war between academic freedom and the forces, impulses, and structures that would stymie it come in the context of rising Islamophobia, populism, and authoritarian trends in the United Kingdom, Europe, and beyond. The xenophobia reflected in and emboldened by Brexit ramifies across higher education. Public opposition to educating foreign students has increased, with one survey showing some 70 percent of UK respondents in favor of capping the number of international students. The toxic atmosphere around Brexit has also opened doors to political interventions with McCarthyite implications. In 2017 a Tory member of Parliament sent a letter to all university vice chancellors (the highest level of university bureaucracy) asking for the names of those teaching about Brexit, accompanied by a request to see their teaching materials.

As we know, the world of academia is globally connected, and scholarship depends on the free flow of information, ideas, and people. Attacks against higher education in any state can have international effects. The Muslim ban in the United States has impeded free exchange. For example, in 2017 the Home Office prevented an Iraqi student at the University of Exeter from presenting his PhD research in the United States. Government curtailment of academic freedom in China has extended to a UK journal: at the request of Chinese censors, Cambridge University Press blocked online access in China to 315 articles from China Quarterly having to do with the Cultural Revolution, Tibet, Xinjiang, and the Tiananmen Square protests. State violence in the Middle East threatens and has led to the death and imprisonment of researchers in Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, South Sudan, and elsewhere. The purging and imprisonment of Turkish scholars by Recep Erdoğan’s regime since 2016 impoverishes all of academia. According to the human rights monitoring group Turkey Purge, more than six thousand academics have lost their jobs, fifteen universities have been closed down, and over sixty-one thousand students have been left in academic limbo in Turkey. Turkish academics in UK institutions are being sentenced to prison for signing a human rights petition. An assault on their academic freedom is an assault on academic freedom everywhere.


As the political geography in the United Kingdom continues to shift in unpredictable ways, it is anyone’s guess what changes to higher education funding and student and faculty populations may occur. Although the newly elected general secretary of the University and College Union, Jo Grady, has pledged to fight academic precarity, pay erosion, and anti-immigration policies and to call for university management accountability, there is little indication that the union’s grassroots are strong enough to demand and, if necessary, strike for positive changes that would support the material conditions required for real academic freedom for students and faculty members. Academic and student unions can be a powerful force for fighting back against the ideologies and policies stifling academic freedom today. The UCU and the National Union of Students have spoken out against the inherently Islamophobic “Prevent Duty” for undermining the right to question and challenge ideas, and union efforts must be supported and expanded. Individual academics can refuse to comply with biased policing of academic speech and should continue to challenge university administrators who try to quash controversial conversations.

Just as important, we must explain more widely and more urgently what the demise of academic freedom means for the United Kingdom, for this country in the international context, and for the world. For many years the ingrained market logic that dictates reduced government funding for higher education has narrowed the space of academic freedom in the United Kingdom. The assessment exercises and market-competition framework have become so normalized that few even talk about resisting the impositions of the REF and TEF, let alone organizing to make public arguments against them.

Why don’t social scientists use their training to point out collectively that absolutely no measurable proof exists that the REF and TEF have improved research quality or the economy? It is time that we make “impact” really meaningful—socially and politically—by putting our hard-earned analytical and communicative skills to better effect. We must demonstrate the importance of independent, wide-ranging, creative research and show how Conservative government ideology and funding patterns seek to neutralize the university as a space for discovery, debate, and real diversity.  

Lori Allen is reader in the department of anthropology and sociology at SOAS University of London. Her email address is [email protected]