Academic freedom is under pressure in Irish universities

Academic freedom thrives on diversity and encouraging contrasting ideas

Academic freedom is essential to the university’s mission of discovering new knowledge and teaching existing knowledge to students. It is unfortunately under threat worldwide from pressures both internal and external to the academy.

Academic freedom is guaranteed in all western democracies. The guarantee in the Irish Universities Act 1997 is comprehensive : “A member of the academic staff of a university shall have the freedom, within the law, in his or her teaching, research and any other activities, either in or outside the university, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions and shall not be disadvantaged or subject to less favourable treatment by the university for the exercise of that freedom”.

Academic freedom thrives on diversity, encouraging the free contest of contrasting ideas and thereby facilitating reliable and timely discovery of new knowledge.

Denial of academic freedom produces monotonous error-ridden uniformity. For example, the USSR brought scientific research under political control in the 1930s. This fostered the rise of agricultural geneticist Trofim Denisovitch Lysenko (1898-1976) who believed mendelian hereditary theory is erroneous. He proposed that heredity can be changed by good crop husbandry, thereby improving agriculture.


Lysenko's ideas were disastrous both for Russian science and agriculture, contributing to several famines.

Lysenko's ideas harmonised with Communist ideology and pleased Joseph Stalin. Lysenko was appointed director of the Institute of Genetics of the Soviet Academy of Sciences and he ruthlessly removed scientists who disagreed with him – many were imprisoned; some executed.

Lysenko's ideas were disastrous both for Russian science and agriculture, contributing to several famines. Lysenko was removed from office in 1965 by Nikita Krushchev (1984-1971).

Dictatorial regimes constrain academic freedom. For example, theAmerican Association of University Professorsreports that one-party communist China tightened restrictions on academic freedom in 2018, suspending some professors who criticised government policy. Students monitor faculty speech and report deviations from government policy to the authorities.

There is a growing campus culture of intolerance towards expression of legitimate opinions deemed to be on the 'wrong' side of a range of issues.

But apart from dictatorships, there are many threats to academic freedom throughout the world. One worrying development, particularly in America and increasingly in UK, is the growing campus culture of intolerance towards expression of legitimate opinions deemed to be on the "wrong" side of a range of issues, for example sexual orientation/gender/transgender issues, abortion, immigration policy and religion. Thankfully, Ireland has so far experienced only a mild version of this new intolerance.

Such intolerance is frequently student-lead and involves, for example, “no-platforming” of properly invited guest speakers to campus who are known advocates of positions not favoured by the politically correct students. Speakers are denied the opportunity to speak, perhaps by barricading the lecture hall. This negates academic freedom.

All too often university authorities are supine in the face of this intolerance and many academics feel too intimidated to speak out. But academic freedom must be protected and I was pleased to see UCD academics rise to the occasion recently.

University natural sciences are also at risk of co-option by the State entirely in the service of the economy. Economies run on science-based technology and governments rightly expect universities to support economic growth by producing scientists and engineers and doing applied research. But there is much more to science.

Scientists must also do curiosity-driven research that has no obvious near-term practical applications but expands understanding of the natural world. However, the lion’s share of Government research funding currently supports applied research. This limits scientists’ academic freedom to choose their research areas and damages the overall health of science.

In accordance with government policy, Ireland now leads the world in rate of transfer of students from second to third level and our universities are bursting at the seams.

Nevertheless government university funding has seriously declined over the past decade, forcing universities to chase foreign students who pay large economic fees in an attempt to maintain income. This can also put pressure on academic freedom.

UCD proposed changing its academic freedom policy to accommodate expanding international links with China and other countries, prompting me to write this article. The proposal was withdrawn in the face of widespread opposition from academic staff.

Finally a proposal that can be easily implemented: All incoming university students should be taught a module on the nature and role of the university, including the cornerstone of academic freedom.

William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC