About Me

My photo
ARCHIVE PLEASE VISIT: joannawilliams.org Joanna is the author of Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity (2016) and Consuming Higher Education Why Learning Can't Be Bought (2012). She is the education editor of Spiked. She has written for the Telegraph and Guardian blogs, the Times Higher Education and other UK and US publications. Contact me: jowilliams293@gmail.com Twitter: @jowilliams293

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Who needs Athena Swan?

This evening I want to argue that Athena Swan forces universities to have an unhealthy obsession with gender that is bad for higher education, bad for science and bad for women.

Athena Swan presents a narrative of women as victims in the academy and in the lab in particular – the targets of prejudice who need special campaigns in order to get on. This is not just an unhelpful message to send to our daughters, it flies in the face of reality.

Women go to university in greater numbers than men and have done since 1992. This is the year I went to university. People older than me entered the labour market at a time when things really weren’t so good for women. When childcare was far harder to come by and cultural expectations about what women were capable of achieving really did cap women’s ambitions. But in the intervening quarter of a century this has completely changed and women younger than me have more opportunities than ever before.

This is across all subject areas. Arguing there are gender gaps in science depends upon a very strange definition that discounts whole areas of the discipline. In 2014, 78 per cent of veterinary science undergraduates were female as were 82 per cent of students on courses in subjects allied to medicine. 57 per cent of those studying either medicine or dentistry were women. This is not a recent change. Each year since the mid-1970s roughly 60 per cent of medical students have been female. Today, girls aged 16, outperform boys in all the major science subjects. Aged 18, boys perform marginally better (under one per cent) at maths and chemistry, but girls do better in further maths, biology, computer science and physics and as a result more women than men are studying every science subject at university with the exception of physics, engineering and some branches of physical chemistry.

Initiatives like Athena Swan draw our attention to the ‘leaky pipeline’ a metaphor that suggests that although many women enter science as students, they then drop out and there is a gender imbalance at the top of the profession. Again, we’ve got to remember 1992. To establish a career, to get to the stage where you are running a lab, takes many years. Of course, comparing the number of women doing science PhDs today with the number of women professors shows a huge gap. But compare the number of women science professors today with the number of women PhD students twenty years ago and that gap is far smaller. As new female entrants progress through their careers then they will eventually swell the senior ranks too. The myth of the leaky pipeline, used by campaigners for all good intentions, tells these young women students that science is prejudiced against them.

It would be naïve of me to suggest that there are no issues facing women – most especially those who combine careers with motherhood. When women have children, the long hours in labs that scientific careers demand are both more difficult and less attractive. But the problem here is only in part to be found in science. Our cultural narrative sees women as the primary carer – meaning that despite working 200 miles away from home yesterday I still got three messages from my nearly 18yr old son’s school to find out why he hadn’t made it back after lunch. My suggestion that they ask his father – or, better still, ask the young man himself – did not go down well. But I wasn’t the victim of some patriarchal conspiracy designed to keep women in the home – it is more often other women making those phone calls – and mothers themselves who choose to take on this role.

What we need nowadays is both cultural and practical support to allow women the freedom to run their lives in the way that is best for both them and their families. This means providing good quality, affordable and flexible childcare.

One leading advocate for nursery provision for scientist-parents was Sir Tim Hunt whose by now famous ill-advised joke about the ‘trouble’ with women in labs led to his resignation from his honorary professorship at University College London.
It was science’s presumed inability to recruit and retain women, and the supposedly precarious employment and promotion prospects of female scientists, that provoked the outrage around Hunt’s remark. In a public statement, the provost of UCL justified his acceptance of Hunt’s resignation and declared, ‘Equality and diversity is not just an aspiration at UCL, but informs our everyday thinking and our actions. It was for this very reason that Sir Tim’s remarks struck such a discordant note. Our ambition is to create a working environment in which women feel supported and valued at work.’

Two points here. First, did Professor Arthur really think women scientists such sensitive and delicate flowers they would be likely to wilt at a self-deprecating joke made on the other side of the world? Second, is the promotion of equality and diversity now placed above the pursuit of knowledge in the aims of the university?

It seems as if prompting the resignation of eminent scientists is legitimate if it makes women feel more valued.

Athena SWAN is considered so ideologically central to the promotion of gender equality and pragmatically vital for maintaining institutional revenue streams that it is rarely criticised. In practice this means that time and money that should be spent on medical research, technological advance and the pursuit of pure knowledge is instead channelled into form-filling and box-ticking. Appointments are made and resources invested with gender balance and team diversity, rather than intellectual gains, in mind.

But what this means in practice is that women in labs will always be women in labs, forced to act as representatives of their gender.

Once feminists fought against the patronising label ‘good – for a woman’ – they wanted to be equal to men – they wanted to be ‘good – for a scientist’. Today women can never just be scientists.

We need to stop scaring girls with horror stories about science’s alleged ‘woman problem’ and we need to stop patronising women scientists by assuming they need a helping hand. We also need to stop confusing science with politics.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Politics is back in Britain - we should celebrate

It first began to dawn on me that something quite significant had changed in Britain when I got my hair cut a couple of months ago. I love my hair dresser. Over many years I’ve heard all about his family and friends, his views on celebrities, clients and colleagues. This time was different. ‘So,’ he leaned in conspiratorially, ‘what do you think about this EU referendum then?’

Politics is back in Britain. Sit on a bus or go for a coffee, everywhere people are talking about the momentous decision by the British people to reject the EU. It’s as bruising as it is invigorating. I’ve argued with friends and family who disagreed with my decision to vote leave. I’ve been accused of ignorance, xenophobia and narrow-mindedness. I’ve been told that even if I am not racist, my actions have legitimised the racist views of others.

I voted leave because I believe in democracy. To me, democracy is more than just a technical process. It’s about more than just putting a cross on a ballot paper once every five years in a choice between scripted managers with barely a political difference, never mind a principle, between them. Rather, democracy is those conversations in salons and coffee shops; it’s people engaged with real choices about competing visions of the future.

The EU serves as a means of distancing people from politics; it provides a machinery for decision makers to hide behind. It allows politicians to avoid being held to account by the public. The best thing about the referendum campaign was that it blew the bureaucracy away and allowed the question of who runs Britain to be posed starkly. British people were asked to decide on an issue of national sovereignty and 52 per cent of them agreed that yes, they’d like more of it, thanks.

The full weight of the political establishment, business leaders, economists, scientists, Nobel laureates, academics, experts and even David Beckham, urged the British people to get in line and vote to remain in the EU. As such, the result, the rejection of their wishes, came as a surprise to many and a complete shock to others including, as has now become apparent those running the Vote Leave campaign.

Some of those who argued for remain have spent the days since the referendum result was announced declaring their horror, their grief, their incomprehension, from newspaper columns and television studios. They conclude that those who voted leave are either prejudiced and stupid or so down-trodden and impoverished as to be easy prey to the propaganda of the leave campaign.

Over three million people have signed a petition calling for a second referendum (and presumably a third and a fourth until they get the result they want). Some have marched on Parliament, others have sat in front of computers, all desperately endeavouring to find some way to have the result of the referendum, the democratic will of the people, overturned. What these people don’t seem to grasp is that it is precisely this sentiment, the sneering contempt for the masses, the rejection of the democratic idea that each person’s vote is of equal weight, that drove the decision to leave the EU.

The referendum has not divided the UK, it has only shone a light on existing divisions. We’ve heard much ugly rhetoric about the young having been robbed of their futures by elderly people who do not have to live for long with the consequences of their decision. But only 36 per cent of those aged 18 - 24 turned out to vote. If the EU really meant that much to them, perhaps they may have found their way to a polling station. The real division that is emerging is not between north and south or young and old, but between those who trust in people, all people, even those they disagree with and are prepared to defend democracy, and those who prefer to scorn or pity the electorate and clamour to reject democracy.

Sadly, in the run up to the referendum both the leave and the remain side ran negative campaigns that were intent on scaring people with a fear of the present, their neighbours, or a fear of the future. Very few were able to articulate a positive vision of Britain either in or out of the EU. Now, this negativity is reflected in a political vacuum as Prime Minister David Cameron rushed to resign and the opposition Labour Party has imploded. No one has enthusiastically stepped up, exercised leadership and accepted responsibility for steering the UK out of the EU. This alone is a shocking indictment of the British political class.


For British democrats the demand now needs to be that the will of the people is upheld. The British government need to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty immediately and start the process of leaving the EU as soon as possible. Hopefully this will add wind to the sails of democrats across the continent who also want freedom from the EU’s shackles.

This article originally appeared on the Polish website Liberte:

Wielka Brytania głosując za Brexitem wybrała demokrację


Thursday, 21 April 2016

This house believes in political debate not political correctness

Imagine for a moment a world without offence, a safe space where every word and image that might upset someone is banished, a society where political correctness is the order of the day, where only nice things are said, only compliments are paid, and no one ever disagrees with anyone.

Ladies and gentlemen, if this is your idea of utopia then you are in the wrong place this evening. Indeed, you should never have left your mother’s womb  - that would be a womb belonging to a woman - and entered this heteronormative, transphobic, neoliberal, patriarchal, Euro-centric cruel, cruel world. Because - despite the best efforts of those who consider themselves so morally superior to the rest of humanity that they are able to act as censor and determine what other people can and cannot see, read and hear - a world without offence is impossible to achieve. Offence is entirely subjective. When we begin to outlaw offence there is no obvious place to stop. Even when every word, image and act is regulated there will still be someone who is offended by something.

The reality of a world without offence is a world where people think twice before complimenting each other; politely enquire as to which pronouns a person uses before engaging in conversation; interrupt love making to seek formal consent before, during and after every sexual act; and lose precious hours agonising over choice of party themes and fancy dress costumes. This is a world without passion, spontaneity or fun. It is a world where existence would be so mind-numbingly tedious that finding oneself comatose would come as a blessed relief.

If a world without offence were possible to achieve it is not somewhere I would ever want to live because the price we pay for emotional safety is our freedom. And that is the choice we face this evening - political correctness with its demands on us to conform and privilege emotional safety and the prevention of offence above all else  - or freedom, the freedom to offend and be offended through political debate and human interaction. I pose this choice starkly because it’s not the case that political correctness has gone too far and just needs reigning in a bit. Political correctness is illiberal, censorious and elitist. It is a snobby and regressive ideology dressed up in achingly culturally appropriate right-on clothing.

This evening I want to outline four reasons why this house should believe in political debate and not political correctness.

Firstly, I will argue that political correctness is a dangerous threat to our freedom that needs to be taken seriously. It poses a fundamental challenge to free speech that is far more pernicious than just a common sense request for politeness. Second, I will argue challenging political correctness means defending the right to be offensive; third, that knowledge cannot advance without offence; and finally that the politically correct demand that speech rights should be distributed according to a notion justice is elitist and anti-democratic.


The beauty of political correctness is that it is easy to poke fun at. I first became aware of PC in the late 1980s when I was fourteen. My youngest sister was four and came home from nursery singing Baa Baa Blue Sheep Have You Any Wool. My family were all a bit baffled by this but fortunately it wasn’t long before newspaper headlines about ‘loony lefties’ and ‘political correctness gone mad’ alerted us to what was going on.

Unfortunately, the ease with which wacky examples can be derided masks the more subtle and invasive grip political correctness now has upon society as a whole. A few years later when I was at university I remember all the NUS executive officers walking round in t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan ‘I don’t laugh at racist jokes’. And although it was odd there was indeed nothing funny about this virtue-signalling display of politically correct one-upmanship.

By the late 90s political correctness had stopped being a fringe activity deserving only ridicule and began to be taken seriously. It stopped being used in sentences ending ‘gone mad’ and began to be used in sentences beginning ‘We need to be’. Today, political correctness has become ingrained in our culture. We hardly need the virtue-signallers to point out our linguistic errors - we have a voice lodged in our own heads, self-censoring our words before they ever get spoken. Ours is not just an age of political correctness but an age of conformity where few dare challenge the mantra that ‘You can’t say that!’

Unfortunately, although attitudes towards political correctness have changed, the concept itself hasn’t. The mad obsession with changing language rather than reality has remained. The condescending notion that women, black or gay people can’t cope with hearing songs, jokes or everyday human interaction has remained. And the elitist assumption that there is a small group of unappointed people who know better than everyone else what is correct and whose role it is to educate the ignorant masses has also remained.


Political correctness is about far more than just common sense politeness. It is an insidious attack on our liberty that allows a self-appointed elite, an unelected and unaccountable clique, to tell the rest of us which of our thoughts are good and can be uttered and which need to be smothered at first formulation. It establishes new sins such as cultural appropriation, heteronormativity or most serious of all - denying the reality that a man in a dress is still a man. Committing one of these new sins demands far more in the way of repentance than a few extra Hail Marys after Saturday Confession. Repentance demands public acknowledgement of our crimes, re-education in consent classes and ‘good lad’ workshops; re-engineering our brains until we admit two plus two is five and a man in a dress is a woman.

For those of us who believe in freedom it’s not enough just to roll our eyes at the banning of sombreros or the demand for jazz hands rather than applause. We need to assert the right to offend no matter who or how many people we upset.


All significant advances in knowledge have caused great offence. Over a century ago the theory of evolution greatly offended creationists. The first proposals to teach science and English literature offended the classicists at this very university. Ironically, some of the ideas that campaigners today hold most dear - equal rights for women, gay and black people, were all considered highly offensive when they were first made. As I am sure you all know, the proposal that women students should be allowed to graduate caused huge offence here at Cambridge right up until 1948. Political correctness may appear nice but in preventing offence it stops society  - and knowledge - from progressing. Banishing offence means no one can ever challenge an established view.

Finally, I’ve heard it argued that political correctness is simply a way of levelling the playing field and ameliorating existing injustices. People argue that the problem with free speech is that it is simply a means of allowing those who are already privileged  - cis, white, straight, males - even greater scope to spread their oppressive view of the world. Well, to those who think this, some home truths. Not all cis white men share the same views. The best way to challenge views you don’t like is with better arguments - this needs more free speech not less. Censoring those you don’t like in the name of justice means you hand over your freedom. Not only does someone not get to speak - but - perhaps more importantly - you no longer get to hear. You might gain protection from discomfort but in doing so you hand your capacity to think critically over to a self-appointed clique.



Wednesday, 21 May 2014

What's so special about the arts and humanities?

I’ll begin with some things that are not special about the arts and humanities. Despite the hopes of some in government, there is nothing special about the contribution these subjects make to either the national economy or to individual income levels.
From the time of the First World War, the British government sought to link funding universities from the public purse to a political and economic return for the nation. While this may have been relatively unproblematic for branches of science and social science, it was more difficult for literature, history and philosophy. Such disciplines, previously grouped together under the loose heading of ‘liberal arts’, adopted the North American label of ‘humanities’ at this time which hinted at a special sense of purpose in relation to universal humanity and common culture.
More recently, with the advent of fee-paying students, governments increasingly expect universities to justify tuition fees on the basis of the enhanced employability skills individuals acquire. Here we see the special case for the arts and humanities measured in the returns graduates can secure on their investment in fees. Courses with titles such as ‘Employability for Philosophers’, are presumably designed to highlight the transferable skills students can gain from studying Kant, Hegel or Aristotle. In the seminar room we see a focus on form rather than content, with students encouraged to develop transferable employability skills in group-work, giving a presentation or writing a report. Rather than indicating anything special about the arts and humanities, this focus on form rather than content suggests precisely the opposite.
Perhaps understandably, many lecturers react against this crude economic instrumentalism and prefer to cite social benefits as the special nature of the arts and humanities. It is argued that the arts and humanities help foster tolerance, understanding and empathy; that  they contribute to individual happiness and wellbeing; as well as global citizenship, increased environmental consciousness, cultural awareness and democratic participation. Although these social and political aims undoubtedly seem nicer than just helping people on the way to a well paid job, they are no less instrumental.
With such instrumentalism we lose any sense of what is inherently important about the content, the literature, music, or art, being studied. If the criteria for inclusion in the curriculum is the attitudes and values  a particular work may help cultivate, there is little basis for preferring Shakespeare to the Simpsons or  privileging Plato over a self-help manual.
What’s special about the arts and humanities is their content. It’s not skills but  knowledge, not social benefits but beauty. We can’t put a monetary value on studying such subjects and no more can we measure their social impact upon the population. Art, literature, music, philosophy and history have an intrinsic value. The knowledge we gain from the humanities, or the experience of the beauty of the arts, becomes its own reward. What’s special is indefinable, it’s in the beauty, the pleasure of the learning experience, the way they make us see ourselves and the world through a different lens. They provide us with knowledge of times, places, people and cultures that takes us beyond our immediate circumstances and provide us with a point of comparison for evaluating our own experiences. Only through studying the arts and humanities can we truly know more about ourselves, our common humanity, and the world we live in.
Everyone has their own story about the first time they became aware of the power of literature, art or music to open up the world to them in new ways. For me, as a child growing up in the industrial North East of England with chemical works and steel plants newly abandoned, it was books that provided an escape into a world beyond the grey around me. I read all of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons books before I saw a lake in real life and I still haven’t yet managed to go on a sailing boat. Although days spent messing about on boats were far removed from my everyday life, it was precisely this irrelevance combined with, what seemed to me at the time, fascinating new words and beautiful illustrations, that so captured my ten year old imagination. Literature for me was a means of escape - not as a crude route to employability, social mobility and an increased pension - but as an imaginative leap through time and space.
I was hooked and went on to take English at university, but here I was to be disappointed. Only recently have I discovered that English departments in the early 1990s were in the grip of two particular trends which came together to take the literature out of an English degree. Radical lecturers questioned the extent to which high culture truly represented universal values and argued that literary canons simply reflected the cultural tastes of a social elite. At the same time, academics were influenced by trends in Critical Theory, poststructuralism, deconstruction and postmodernism; as well as political trends in feminism, identity politics and  intersectionality. This challenged the centrality of subject knowledge within the humanities and made my English degree about anything other than the best which had been thought and said.

It can seem that academics within arts and humanities faculties have been all too quick to jettison the knowledge they have to transmit. Specifying a canon, conceiving of a body of knowledge, and declaring some things as being more worthy of study than others, implicates us in messy problems like passing judgement, having an objective basis for such judgements, and the confidence to defend our position.
I recently observed an undergraduate English seminar on the topic of narrative structure. There were no specified set-texts and so some students discussed the narrative structure of the television programme Friends, while others considered King Lear. Not only were students left with the impression that sit-coms and Shakespearean tragedies were equivalently formulaic in their structure, it was virtually impossible for any meaningful discussion to take place as no one text had been read (or watched) by all students.
Teaching the best and most beautiful also assumes faith in our students, that they are capable of mastering challenging material that doesn’t just speak to their immediate circumstances. Today, passing judgment on the content of arts and humanities courses is rejected for fear of appearing to be elitist. At the same time, it’s assumed that ordinary people can’t possibly be expected to find pleasure in works tainted by association with those who have the temerity to be dead, white, European or male.
The fact we need to ask what is so special about the arts and humanities is indicative of a lack of confidence in disciplinary knowledge and a crisis in our ability to pass judgement. When knowledge is no longer justified as an end in itself, other projects such as citizenship and employability have been greeted with relief as a means of filling the intellectual vacuum. Academics in the arts and humanities need to consider the disciplinary-specific basis for passing judgement in order to distinguish the very best material to put before their students. Canons are not fixed for all time. Let the role of university’s arts and humanities departments be to debate, discuss and distinguish the best that has been thought and said. And let’s have confidence in people’s ability to understand, enjoy and participate in that debate.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Speech on Academic Freedom for Westminster Briefing, Research Ethics and Integrity, 26/02/14 (full transcript)

The title for this section of today’s proceedings is ‘Ensuring Research Stays Independent of Political and Industry Objectives’. This title makes two fundamental - and flawed - assumptions.  Firstly, it assumes that research is currently free from political and industry objectives; I will argue that this is not the case. Secondly, it assumes academics want research to be free from market-driven and political goals, again, I will argue that this is often not so.

Complacency - there is no threat to academic freedom here!

I am concerned that there is far too much complacency about academic freedom in the UK today. All too often, threats to academic freedom are perceived as occurring abroad. Tales abound of scholars from other parts of the world who face losing their jobs, or having their right to publish curtailed, because heavy-handed university managers have decreed the nature of the research may bring the institution into disrepute with financial backers from government or big business. The cases of academics from the USA who seek to publish research which is critical of Israel and find this comes into conflict with the political interests of sponsors, provoke particular sympathy in the British higher education press. And rightly so - we should be concerned about restrictions on the academic freedom of scholars across the globe. However, this can often result in complacency about the state of academic freedom closer to home.

Academics working in the UK today are fortunate in that they experience very few formal restrictions upon what they can and cannot research or when and where they can publish their findings. Indeed, the newly effective Defamation Act has been welcomed on the basis that it provides protection against the threat of libel for academics whose research is published in peer-reviewed journals. Most university managers have enough administrative and bureaucratic tasks to permit them the time to interfere in the day-to-day research of junior colleagues. But it would be wrong to interpret this lack of censorship on the part of management as a licence for free expression within universities. Academic freedom today is not curtailed by university managers, fear of libel or draconian rules.

Academics censoring each other

Today, threats to academic freedom come most often from colleagues rather than managers and so they can appear to be less of a threat. It is perhaps difficult to apply the label censorship when an academic finds themselves sympathetic to the political motivations behind the imposed restrictions. Calls for boycotts of Israeli universities and academics result in censorship, but as it is self-imposed it is rarely acknowledged as such. Recently, in the UK, feminist academics have sought to close down discussion on the topic of rape. They have decreed that some research can’t be allowed into the public domain lest it may be misinterpreted by the popular media and ‘dangerous’ ideas propagated to the unenlightened masses. Such politically motivated curtailing of debate is less easy to recognise as censorship but its impact upon academic freedom is perhaps more damaging than formal restrictions. One consequence is that today, consciously or otherwise, all too often academics choose to self-censor. I would argue that the biggest threat to academic freedom today comes from the reluctance of academics to say anything controversial at all.

From time to time commercial backers of research do try to interfere in the research process and academics need to be vigilant to prevent this happening. The example of Aubrey Blumsohn who, in 2006, lost his research position at the University of Sheffield following a dispute with his funder, the pharmaceutical company Procter & Gamble, over access to data on a drug the company had produced, has been well publicised. In order to defend academic freedom against industry objectives, researchers need to know they have the full support of their institution and their colleagues and that the lure of financial reward will not detract from traditional academic goals of seeking truth and promoting knowledge.

The university as a business with its own financial interests

Increasingly it is the case that universities see themselves as businesses with financial  interests to defend. As such, it’s again the case that pressure not to upset customers (be they students, businesses, or charities) comes from fellow academics. As a PhD student, at a different university to the one in which I am now based, I wrote an article which was critical of school Family Liaison Officers. I used examples of the work undertaken by Family Liaison Officers garnered from public websites. I didn’t appreciate that some of the schools I’d used by way of illustration were partnership schools for the university’s teacher training programme. The examples I had drawn upon to criticise the role played by Family Liaison Officers were interpreted as criticisms of the schools themselves, in other words, criticisms of a customer and source of revenue for the university. I was condemned by people I’d previously viewed as supportive colleagues and placed under enormous pressure to have the article withdrawn. So although it’s easy for academics to attack interference in research that comes from Big Pharma, multi-nationals or tobacco companies, the business that is the university itself is less often perceived as a source of censorship.

Many academics are critical of the commercialisation of universities and money-making activities such as selling services to business; seeking sponsorship for particular departments, and selling the ‘core product’ of the university: that is, education. There has been an increase in campaigns against the more obvious encroachment of business interests into academia. It seems that the more a degree certificate becomes a commodity, the less many within the HE sector wish to be associated with other forms of commercialisation. As far back as 1996, there were protests in the UK in response to Cambridge University accepting money from British-American Tobacco to fund a professorship in International Relations. However, such political distaste all too often represents an uncritical belief held by many academics that money from the state is ‘good’ and independent or private finance is ‘bad’, as it must be tainted by the interests of capitalist business, despite the fact that government money may come with far more political strings attached.

State funding - with strings attached

In recent years funding bodies that distribute money to academics in the form of grants for particular research projects have asserted criteria that are much more explicitly in keeping with the political agenda of the government. State funded research councils provide money for academic work in specific priority areas. They will often specify particular topics they are keen to fund or types of research they want to encourage; for example, interdisciplinary quantitative research on the environmental impact of particular types of development; the effectiveness of initiatives designed to promote the Big Society or social inclusion; or investigations into ways of tackling gang culture, domestic violence or terrorist threats. Such research objectives carry certain expectations and implicit values. From the outset it is assumed, for example, that social inclusion is good and gang culture is bad. Researchers critical of the fundamental premise find it more difficult to secure funding, their research never gets off the ground and the need for censoring the publication of controversial results never arises.

Such state interference in research objectives is seen as problematic only when the values of the funding councils comes into conflict with the values of individual academics.  But the underlying assumption, that a university is a place to promote particular values rather than to encourage objectivity and a search for truth, has all too often been accepted. Universities all around the world have signed up to the United Nations Rio+ 20 Higher Education Sustainability Initiative which requires institutions to commit to: teach sustainable development concepts; encourage research on sustainable development issues; green our campuses; and to support sustainability efforts. This list confuses values and knowledge. Instead of interrogating concepts such as sustainable development, the pro-environment focus encourages the teaching and assessing of pre-determined outcomes which may include personal behaviour and individually held principles rather than knowledge. Such lists of values curtail academic freedom by creating a moral orthodoxy of what it is acceptable to research and teach.

Charities have agendas too

Similarly, charities are a substantial source of revenue for universities nowadays, and there are few campaigns against income from such sources. Yet there is little pretence that money from charities is some how agenda-free or value-neutral; it’s just the case that academics are often happy to support the values of the charities offering financial backing. But research undertaken on behalf of a charity is often designed to expose the extent of a problem (such as the scale of elder abuse, bullying, or mental health concerns in young people) that the charity can then exploit to increase its own revenue streams. Such advocacy research for charities or pressure groups appeals to some academics who may see themselves as speaking out for victims or the giving a voice to the otherwise-oppressed. Yet often the conclusions are determined in advance and the aim of the research is to prove a point rather than to raise difficult questions about the charity’s agenda. Such research is rarely seen as a threat to academic freedom because it matches the values of the researchers.

From knowledge to values in higher education

In the past, universities have been praised by the government for ‘passing on and preserving a set of shared societal values, including tolerance, freedom of expression and civic engagement.’ This statement continues, ‘ [Universities] have the capacity to provide intellectual leadership in our society, in areas such as the transition to a low carbon economy’ (BIS 2009). The focus of education is here shifted away from the preserving and passing on of a shared body of knowledge to the preserving and passing on of values, in this case, a low-carbon economy. This can be seen in the recent inclusion of sustainable development as a cross-curricular theme in many taught modules or the emergence of courses such as ‘Responsible Business’. This is a major shift in purpose and has repercussions in terms of academic and personal freedom. When values replace knowledge in this way, education runs the risk of becoming reduced to indoctrination.

The promotion of particular values in both teaching and research leads to a climate of self-censorship and a culture of uncriticality for both staff and students. Holding, and expressing, controversial ideas that will test the limits of academic freedom requires an ability to think critically. Too often it seems that universities today actually seek to prevent criticality and instead try to coerce groupthink among academics and students alike. If you don’t share the dominant values, you learn to keep quiet. Particularly in the social sciences, there is a growing sense that there are some views that just cannot be expressed. On the one hand, the pseudo-radical, broadly left-wing consensus that pervades universities means that castigating neoliberalism, the influence of the popular media, and the desire to consume, will automatically garner the support of the peers who will review your work for publication and you for promotion. On the other hand, not paying lip-service to the importance of feminism, the welfare state, and protecting the environment, is more likely to see your work rejected. New academics are often recruited because their research fits into the existing departmental culture.

Beyond conformity

So, to conclude, I would argue that the biggest threat to academic freedom today comes not from industry imposing objectives, nor even so much from an explicit government-backed agenda. Rather, academic freedom is under attack from academics themselves who conform uncritically to the values of funders and self-censor so as not to offend peer-reviewers or the institution’s customers. What’s needed more than ever in our universities is real criticality.  Academics must move beyond accepting dominant values and toeing a politically correct line, and instead have the courage to challenge the stifling culture of conformity that pervades academia today.