What’s Wrong With Academic Freedom in the UK?

Tone dials
Beware of what you say, of course, but also be aware of how you say it.

In early 2014, Thomas Docherty, a professor at the University of Warwick, found himself suspended from work. Media at the time stated that the university had taken these steps in response to ‘insubordination’ on the part of Docherty, including inappropriate body language and facial expressions in dealings with colleagues. Professor Docherty had publicly criticised British universities’ turn to authoritarian management practices and pervasive commercialisation (1, 2). The University of Warwick denied that Docherty was to be punished for voicing his political views. An internal investigation eventually resolved the matter, and Docherty was reinstated.

In March 2015, the university also issued the “Warwick tone of voice” guidelines. In this document, the university sets out the need for a mode of self-presentation that corresponds to the university’s desired brand image. The guidelines’ opening paragraphs spell out this rationale as follows:

What is tone of voice and why do we need a ‘Warwick’ tone of voice?

The tone of our language defines the way people respond to us. By writing in a tone that’s true to our brand, we can express what it is that makes University of Warwick unique.

Our brand: defined by possibility

What is it that makes us unique? We’re a university with modern values and a formidable record of academic and commercial achievement — but not the only one. So what sets us apart?

The difference lies in our approach to everything we do. Warwick is a place that fundamentally rejects the notion of obstacles — a place where the starting point is always ‘anything is possible’. This can be best communicated using the language of what could be and a phrase — ‘what if’.” (p.2)

The document then goes on stipulate in considerable detail words, phrases and forms of speech that it would like its staff to use. For instance:

1. Look to the future

What if doesn’t dwell in the past. Focusing on the future creates a sense of anticipation, progress and change.From

We saw the potential to expand our research in this field




By expanding our research in this field we will have the opportunity to…

We began…we wanted…we have seen…we look back on…we have become…our experience…our heritage…etc. We begin…we want…we will see…we look ahead to…we’ll become…our plans …our ambitions…etc.
  1. Keep it positive
What if is optimistic. Use language that highlights the benefits rather than limitations. Make the reader feel that you’re there to help them.From

We cannot continue until

This is only for

Due to negligence




We’ll do this as soon as

This is for everyone who

We’re working to fix

Those who failed to attend the meeting will have missed If you couldn’t make the meeting, you can catch up by “ (p.6)

One may assume that someone at the University of Warwick read, profoundly misunderstood and, in a misguided way, learned from that famous appendix in that famous book by George Orwell. Newspeak’s approach to the English vocabulary is one obvious inspiration:

“The B vocabulary consisted of words which had been deliberately constructed for political purposes: words, that is to say, which not only had in every case a political implication, but were intended to impose a desirable mental attitude upon the person using them. Without a full understanding of the principles of Ingsoc it was difficult to use these words correctly. In some cases they could be translated into Oldspeak, or even into words taken from the A vocabulary, but this usually demanded a long paraphrase and always involved the loss of certain overtones. The B words were a sort of verbal shorthand, often packing whole ranges of ideas into a few syllables, and at the same time more accurate and forcible than ordinary language.”

Perhaps the tone of voice guidelines were a response to a proposal by Warwick’s lawyers to limit free speech on the part of academics, in order to protect universities’ brand image. A blog post on the part of SGH Martineau, originally published in mid-2014, asks universities to consider the consequences of “high performer misconduct.” Drawing on a comparison with Luis Suárez’s biting incident at the 2014 World Cup, SGH Martineau ostensibly encourage universities to take punitive action against outspoken academics:

“Universities and colleges may, equally, encounter high performing employees who, although academically brilliant, have the potential to damage their employer’s brand. This could be through outspoken opinions (where these fall outside the lawful exercise of academic freedom or freedom of speech more widely) or general insubordination, e.g. a failure to comply with the reasonable requests of an employer, or other behaviour such as bullying or harassment of colleagues. Irrespective of how potentially valuable these employees may be to their institutions, the reality is that, in consistently accepting unacceptable behaviour, institutions may be setting dangerous precedents to other employees that such conduct will be accommodated. From a risk perspective, it is also much harder to justify a dismissal, or other sanction, if similar conduct has gone unpunished before.

As much as employers may hope that unacceptable behaviour from key employees will be curbed without sanction, in reality the problems will persist, needing to be addressed further down the line. It remains to be seen whether Suarez is right when he says that he will never bite another player again, but he has made similar statements before.”

The post attracted considerable public attention and criticism. In response, SGH Martineau amended the post, declaring that they did not wish to equate the exercise of academic freedom with professional misconduct. At the same time, they reinforced their original claims by declaring that “there may be circumstances where opinions and/or behaviour fall outside the lawful exercise of academic freedom and in these cases questions of misconduct may arise.”

Warick University LTD coverThe University of Warwick has been criticized for being an institution beholden to business interests at least since the publication of E. P. Thompson’s Warwick University Ltd. in 1970. It is a sign of the times that the book was re-issued in 2013 and is now widely available again – just yesterday, I saw it at Foyles’s otherwise shrinking sociology section in London. When I tried to obtain the book in the mid-2000s, it was out of sale, and only big university libraries still seem to keep it. This is because incidents such as those I have outlined above are not unique to the University of Warwick at all. Up and down the country, universities now seem intent on monitoring and controlling the ways in which their academic staff take part in public debates. To cite a further, randomly chosen example, the University of Leeds attracted media attention in mid-2014 for using its social media policies to reprimand a lecturer who had publicly criticised the Home Secretary.

Add to this efforts on the part of the government to regulate academic life (1, 2) in the name of counter-terrorism measures, and it seems clear that academic freedom in the UK is increasingly in question. This threat to academic freedom seems to have two sources. On the one hand, the past 15 years have witnessed an increasing preoccupation on the part of governments, both in the UK and elsewhere in the Western world, with population surveillance and control, as well as the suppression of protest and expressions of dissent that are deemed excessive. In this context, universities have become key sites of struggles over civil liberties and free speech.

On the other hand, perhaps following a trend set in U.S. academia, British universities are more and more turning into business corporations – authoritarian, hierarchical, and fundamentally concerned with their strategic self-presentation in a competitive academic marketplace. Within such corporate universities, messy, controversial, outspoken academic debates can only be a nuisance to be managed and controlled as much as possible.

Nothing I have written here is really new at all. The trends I have described have been described on numerous occasions. Actually, the writing has been on the wall since E.P. Thompson published Warwick University Ltd. nearly half a century ago. Nonetheless, given the ferocity of the current assault on academic freedom, it seems to me that we may be close to a point of no return, past which ‘tone of voice policies’ and similar control mechanisms may become a norm into which coming generations of academics will be socialized as a matter of course. Academics have no political lobby, and concerns over academic freedom are, outside specialist publications like Times Higher Education, not a matter of public interest.

Still, at present, there are some campaigns that deal with these issues (1, 2), limited as they may still be in their scope. Such an organised response on the part of concerned academics seems to be the only way to generate more debate and stop a trend that might irrevocably damage academic freedom in the UK.

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Daniel Nehring

My career so far has taken me to a fairly wide range of places, and this has allowed me to experience a wide range of approaches to sociology and social science. In my blog, I reflect on this diversity and its implications for the future of the discipline.

Over the last few years, I have also become interested in exploring the contours of academic life under neoliberal hegemony. Far-reaching transformations are taking place at universities around the world, in terms of organisational structures, patterns of authority, and forms of intellectual activity. With my posts, I hope to draw attention to some of these transformations.

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