We often claim that our business is very different from others, especially those in the private sector. Why should this be so? We are in effect a business – we sell our ability to educate students and our research and innovation skills to various customers. This now includes the research councils given the move from research funder to research sponsor status (e.g. see here). Although strictly speaking we are not required to make a profit, we must at least break even ( i.e. be financially sustainable) and in real terms we need to generate a surplus in order to re-invest. Yet for those who have experienced life in the private sector, working at a University does not feel like working for a company. The difference, I suggest, lies in the treasured concept of academic freedom.
In 1954, Albert Einstein defined academic freedom as the “right to search for truth and to publish and teach what one holds to be true”. Academic freedom protects academics by requiring institutions to ensure that academic staff have freedom within the law to question current wisdom, and to introduce new ideas and controversial opinions without placing themselves in jeopardy .
A few weeks ago I introduced six values, following the deliberations of Faculty Executive Board, that we hope can help crystallise our organisational culture. How do these relate to academic freedom, which some would claim loosely implies that we can do as we want, free from encumbrances? The latter is a gross overstatement of the concept. For example, it is often assumed that academic freedom allows us to undertake research in any area that we please. In reality, we can only undertake research that is sustainable both academically and financially – there is nothing in the concept that states that the institution is required to bankroll one’s research activities indefinitely. We must therefore ensure that we can secure external funding to sustain our research, otherwise it will be difficult or impossible to pursue it in the longer term. This is encapsulated in one of our values, namely efficiency – optimising resources to sustain the activities that depend on them. Moreover, academic freedom does not give us license to ignore the rules and regulations of our employer and behave as we please – we are not, after all self employed. This is realised in another of our values, namely accountability – responsibility for action and conduct.
In its earliest incarnation, academic freedom was probably designed to protect scholars, working individually, from persecution for following their personal research interests, however controversial. Times have changed rapidly however, and it is increasingly less common for individuals to sustain their research agenda alone, typically supported through so-called ‘responsive-mode’ funding. While it is still possible to obtain such funding, in real terms the chances of success have reduced significantly. Instead, funders increasingly support targeted funding for ‘big projects’ aligned to a particular theme or societal challenge through specific ‘calls’, and expect multi-million pound applications involving teams of researchers. So while we are still free to pursue ideas within the scope of the call (limited only by our imagination), we increasingly need to mould our research interests to interface with those of others, in order to make the proposal cohesive (otherwise it won’t get funded!). This relates to two more of our values, namely collaboration – supporting synergic teams built on trust, and respect – valuing the diversity of contributions of our students & staff.
So has academic freedom been eroded over the years? Possibly. I would however argue that we are still free to propose new ideas and controversial opinions without placing ourselves in jeopardy – provided of course that these are within the law, and I would add the rider that these should not be deliberately offensive.