UK: Report warns of low levels of protection for academic freedom

published 1 June 2017 updated 1 June 2017

The University and College Union has launched a report showing significantly lower levels of protection for academic freedom in the UK, when compared to other EU countries.

“Academic Freedom in the UK: Legal and Normative Protection in a Comparative Context”, written by Professor Terence Karran and Lucy Mallinson from the University of Lincoln, UK, also reveals that a quarter of UK academics (23 per cent) say they have been subjected to bullying by colleagues because of their views. The wide-ranging survey was commissioned by the University and College Union (UCU) as part of its efforts to better define what academic freedom means and to ensure it is better protected.

Key findings

One of the recommendations in the report is that the UCU should consider a complaint to UNESCO/International Labour Organisation about the UK government’s failure to implement the 1997 UNESCO Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel. The union said it would consider its options in response to the report, including the possibility of exploring whether or not the UK fulfils its requirements with regard to the 1997 UNESCO recommendation.

The report's authors also argue that people need job security if they are to be really free to challenge certain notions, and be fully involved in university governance.

Other findings include:

·         Two-fifths of UK academics (42 per cent) said they have an adequate working knowledge of the concept of academic freedom. One-third (34 per cent) said they do not.

·         Eight out of 10 UK academics (81 per cent) wanted more information on academic freedom. Three-quarters (74 per cent) of colleagues in other EU countries wanted more information.

·         UK academics feel they have much lower levels of protection of academic freedom than EU colleagues.

·         Over a quarter of UK academics say they have a low level of protection (28 per cent), compared to 13 per cent of EU colleagues.

·         Half (49 per cent) of EU academics say they have a high level of protection, compared to just 22 per cent in the UK.

·         Half of UK academics (52 per cent) compared with a third (34 per cent) of EU colleagues say protection of academic freedom in their university has diminished in recent years.

·         Over two-fifths (43 per cent) of UK academics say individual academic freedom for teaching has declined, compared to a quarter (25 per cent) in EU countries.

·         Two-thirds of UK staff (67 per cent) say employment protection for academic staff has declined in recent years, compared to just over half (54 per cent) in EU countries.

Importance of academic freedom

“This wide-ranging and important report highlights the surprisingly low numbers of academics who feel they have a decent understanding of what academic freedom really is,” said UCU general secretary Sally Hunt. “Less surprising, and somewhat reassuring, is the high percentage that regard it as important.”

She added that in the current climate, where facts have been relegated to secondary importance, it is “absolutely vital” that experts start to be heard again as dangerous policy and political positions can be taken by those who do not fully understand an issue.

“We believe a free society is one that is defined by robust self-governing institutions that regulate themselves within the law, but outside government influence,” she said, adding that the launch of the report represents the start of a wider debate on what academic freedom is and how universities must defend it, a debate UCU hopes the entire sector will get involved in.


The report includes surveys of UCU members and academics from the other 27 EU member states. Most of the legal/constitutional data in the report was gathered as part of an EU-funded Marie Curie project “Safeguarding Academic Freedom in Europe”, and formed the basis for the paper, “Academic Freedom and Its Protection in the Law of European States-Measuring an International Human Right”, published last year.