Change one thing: The future of academic freedom and university autonomy – and why it matters

Dr Jim Browne, president of NUIG, says universities are in a constant state of tension, truly a part of and yet apart from, society


The concepts of “academic freedom” and “university autonomy” tend to evoke different responses in readers: for academics and university managers, they are seen as the cornerstones of an enlightened education sector; for others, they are increasingly viewed with suspicion and scepticism.

University autonomy connotes the freedom of the institution to govern itself. Academic freedom is concerned with the right of individual academics to research and teach and indeed, sometimes forgotten, the right of individual students to learn, without interference from external sources.

Academic freedom is often viewed as the right to speak “truth to power” without fear or favour. It also imposes an obligation on the individual academics to contribute to the advance of fundamental knowledge through enquiry, scholarship and research: speaking truth to power is premised on the notion of an objective commentator whose views are evidence- based and informed by research and scholarship.

The notion of the university as “a part of, yet apart from” society is also bound up with academic freedom and autonomy. An interesting recent example of “speaking truth to power” and the university being genuinely “apart from society”, was the warnings of a small group of academic economists – I am thinking of Morgan Kelly and Alan Ahearne – of the impending property crash in the late 2000s. Would we be in a different place today had their evidence-based and research- informed advice not been drowned out by self-serving conventional wisdom?

The university is rightly called upon to meet the demands of society for appropriate programmes which meet student and employer needs, research which serves society and ultimately leads to innovation and job creation. The university exists in this constant state of tension where it is expected to be truly a part of and yet, if it is to serve its purpose, must be apart from, society.

Those who manage the public purse must respect university autonomy and academic freedom while insisting on appropriate accountability for the public monies they allocate to the university on behalf of the taxpayer. Those who promote university autonomy and academic freedom have a responsibility to account for the use of public funds, as institutions and individuals.

Autonomy has to be balanced with responsibility. Ultimately, rights are preserved and guaranteed by continuing good faith in the discharge of associated responsibilities. For the university, the right to autonomy is earned by taking responsibility for the overall performance of the institution: for the individual academic, the right to academic freedom is guaranteed by accounting for the proper use of that freedom.

What does this mean in practice?

We need to recognise the taxpayers’ commitment to the university sector; it is running at almost €1 billion per year. Accounting for sums of that order requires systems, and, dare I say it, management systems. However, those management systems must be fit for purpose: an oversight system which mistrusts the university sector and seeks to micro- manage it through excessive and unnecessary controls on hiring and reward systems, and which refuses to give the university the tools to deal with under- performance or to develop academic management, is certainly not fit for purpose.

Poorly-designed systems can descend into needless bureaucracy and feed the doubts of those who are sceptical of management systems. An optimal approach requires the State to allow the university the ability to manage itself, to respect its autonomy, and then hold it to account for an agreed set of results.

By the same token, individual academics need to continue to justify their legitimate demand for academic freedom. Academic freedom, properly exercised, serves society well. Its continuity is guaranteed by the ongoing reaffirmation of its value. It is to be understood in terms of the ability to develop, and articulate publicly and without fear or favour, contrarian views. It is not an argument to sustain particular work practices, or worse, to evade transparency and accountability. It is not to be confused with concerns about work practices and management oversight which are properly the remit of labour law and, in my view, are addressed in modern progressive industrial relations practice.

The minority of academics who argue that the development of a managerial culture in universities poses a threat to university autonomy and academic freedom are, in my view, making two fundamental errors. First, they confuse academic freedom with working conditions. Second, they fail to recognise that large institutions, with budgets in the hundreds of millions of euro, cannot be managed without management and associated systems.

The challenge we face as university managers and academics is to ensure academic freedom and university autonomy by putting in place management systems which are fit for purpose and reflect the values and ethos of collegiality, while meeting legitimate concerns for appropriate accountability.

Management systems and personal accountability do not conflict with academic freedom and autonomy. We need to recognise their interdependence if the core values of academic freedom and university autonomy are to be preserved into the future.

Dr Jim Browne is president of NUI Galway

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