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‘Universities must protect academic and student freedoms’, says new campaign

Leading academics have launched a campaign to protect UK academic freedoms, scholars and students in the face of intensifying internationalisation. They say universities should be more accountable to staff and students when it comes to the partnerships they enter into.

They have created a model code of conduct and are seeking buy-in from the British education community – universities and education institutions as well as Governments and the bodies they work with.

The development is to counter fears of increasing government surveillance and harassment of academics and students, and inappropriate pressures from the growing number of commercial sponsors now operating in academia. 

The group says researchers need better mechanisms to confidentially report concerns about their work on politically and socially sensitive topics being interfered with. And every institution should have procedures to support those whose work is threatened.

‘Academic freedoms are being further encroached in a variety of ways in the context on internationalisation,’ warns Dr Corinne Lennox, co-director at the Human Rights Consortium at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, and a founding member of the Academic Freedom and Internationalisation Working Group (AFIWG).  

‘It’s time for us to take heed of the evidence of surveillance and improper influence. We have to take stronger measures to protect the freedoms we have enjoyed and valued for so long. A comprehensive new code of conduct, with wide support, will go a long way to address and mitigate the related risks effectively and protect the human rights of those affected.’

The code of conduct was put together by academics from the University of Exeter, School of Advanced Study, University of London, Goldsmiths, University of London, London School of Economics, King’s College London, University of Lincoln and the University of Edinburgh, working with Scholars at Risk, All-Party Parliamentary Human Rights Group and the Council for At-Risk Academics. The working group was set up with the support of the All-Party Parliamentary Human Rights Group, which supports its work. 

The group, which includes human rights, law, higher education and international relations specialists, recommends that academics – often excluded from decisions to embark on foreign partnerships – should be consulted in advance so that reasonable concerns about risk associated with such partnerships are heard. Academic freedom should be considered concerning the funding of transnational research and new donations and funding streams. 

The code of conduct says universities should provide students with information and guidance on what academic freedom means and how it matters. And substantive due diligence should take place on foreign funders and state and corporate partners, to protect academic freedom, not merely the reputation of the university.

Academic freedom should be considered as part of risk assessments, and there ought to be transparent processes to review changes to risks over time. The code also suggests the appointment of an Ombudsperson on Academic Freedom for the UK.

Code of conduct key points

The new code of conduct builds on the protections already identified and provided by UNESCO, the 1988 Education Reform Act and the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act. Intended to serve as a model for the UK higher education sector, it is launched this week (12 October) and addresses the independence of members of the academic community, both individually and collectively, in the UK higher education sector to: 

•    teach, discuss, assess, define the curriculum and study within their areas of academic expertise and/or inquiry 
•    promote and engage in academic thinking, debate and inquiry
•    carry out research, and publish the results and make them known
•    freely express opinions about the academic institution or system in which they work  
•    participate in professional or representative academic bodies; 
•    not be censored 
•    fulfil their functions without discrimination or fear of repression. 

“Academic internationalisation is in so many ways vitally important, but risks to academic freedom can come from a range of actors whose domestic legal systems fail to protect this basic right. Such risks can be exacerbated by some forms of transnational collaboration that lead to dependencies, including foreign funding arrangements and research and education partnerships”. 

“It is crucial for everyone involved in the UK higher education sector to acknowledge that there are risks to academic freedom and to work collectively and transparently to mitigate and address them. If this can be achieved, then the internationalisation of higher education and research in the UK can be overwhelmingly positive for all those involved.”  

John Heathershaw, associate professor of international relations at the University of Exeter, said: “Higher education is an international endeavour. This has been positive in helping universities and academics across the world cooperate, encourages donations and resources to be given by UK institutions and government to other nations. 

“But it can also undermine academic freedom and the safety of academics because some governments want to curtail intellectual inquiry and dissent, directly or indirectly, by preventing academics and students from expressing their views on politically and socially sensitive topics, as well as their freedom to teach and conduct research on such topics.”

The code of conduct is designed to be a draft model for higher education institutions, bodies which fund academic research and other official or professional bodies when relevant. The experts recommend universities adopt a code of conduct following consultation with their students, staff and campus trade unions, and report publicly, on an annual basis, on steps taken to implement it.

The code of conduct says specific support should be given by universities to academics and students who are at-risk or punished for exercising their academic freedom, such as supporting visa applications, and asylum applications for those who have a well-founded fear of persecution. This includes advocating publicly and privately on the behalf of researchers who are imprisoned or ‘disappeared’ or face administrative or judicial sanctions.

Members of the Academic Freedom Working Group include two NGOs, the secretary of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on human rights, and scholars from the London School of Economics and Political Science, the Universities of Exeter, Oxford, King’s College London, Lincoln and Edinburgh, Goldsmiths, University of London and School of Advanced Study, University of London

Find out more about the Academic Freedom and Internationalisation Working Group at https://bit.ly/30rF8rn and follow the latest news on Twitter at @AcFreeWorldUK.