International Debate

Introduction: Academic Freedom in Crisis

September 2, 2016 2961

The past eight years, beginning with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, are commonly described as a time of global crisis. Some outstanding explorations of the term notwithstanding (e.g. 1, 2, 3), it has become overused in public life and politics, and it now seems practically meaningless. Amongst all the cacophonous crisis talk, however, a growing and troublesome predicament has been largely overlooked. Academic freedom – scholars’ ability to engage the intellectual exchanges of their discipline without restraint and fear of punishment – seems to be in retreat across the world.

Academic Freedom in Crisis: The Series

Diversity of Viewpoints is Essential for the Pursuit of Knowledge | Jo Williams

Emotionalisation, Neoliberalism and Academic Freedom in the US | Sam Binkley

The Transformation of UK Higher Education Since 1968 | Hugo Radice

The Soviet System, Neoliberalism and British Universities | Craig Brandist

The Financialisation of Academic Knowledge Production | Dylan Kerrigan

The Never-Ending Audit®: Questioning the Lecturer Experience | Daniel Nehring

More thoughts

Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech Must be Protected and Respected | Valerie Adams

Thoughts on Academic Freedom (and Our Series) | Various

Take Away Tenure, and Professors Become Sheep | Alice Dreger

In Australia, Academic Contracts Threaten Freed Speech | Katharine Gelber

This claim refers as much to authoritarian states that limit freedom of speech on the whole as to liberal democracies that ostensibly guarantee freedom of scholarly inquiry. This crisis of academic freedom might be usefully understood in the context of broader transformations of universities and academic life at the international level. Over the past two decades, universities across the world have begun a transformation from scholarly institutions, concerned with intellectual pursuit in terms of their own merits, into an industry, concerned with the pursuit of measurable contributions to economic life. In other words, academic work and culture has been thoroughly financialised, through shifts in governments’ policy, the efforts of international organisations, and the growing importance within universities of a new class of managers who view academia as business.

Academic labour is thus increasingly driven by the rigours of competition for resources – grant funds, publication universities, other sources of money and indicators of prestige – between rival academics and universities, rather than the desire for intellectual conversations for their own sake. The success or failure of academic labour is today measured through sets of standardised quantitative indicators that express academic labour in terms of a rigid hierarchy, from global university rankings to national league tables to individual academics’ performance in customer satisfaction surveys.

Conscious of the value of their brand, commercially minded universities have begun to regulate academic speech  – British universities’ tone of voice policies are one particularly egregious example of this trend. Within this new commercial regime, instrumentally useful disciplines – finance and economics, the natural sciences, and so forth – have come to dominate, and scholars across the humanities and social sciences find it increasingly difficult to justify their work.

At the same time, scholarly voices are gradually disappearing from public life and political conversations. Britain’s debate about its departure from the European Union was marked by wholehearted anti-intellectual defamations of ‘experts’ and claims about immigration that contradict published research. In Japan, the government recently undertook a sustained effort to close down humanities and social science departments across the country (1, 2). All these changes, of course concern these academics who are still employed in positions that allow them to engage in scholarship and take part in academic conversations in a meaningful way. In many countries, academic labour is becoming increasingly precarious, and in some, short-term, part-time work on the outer fringes of academia is all a majority of PhD graduates may hope for (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). How, under these conditions, is it still meaningful at all to speak of academic freedom?

The following series of short essays to appear in the coming weeks explore this question in a variety of contexts and consider contemporary issues of academic freedom from a range of perspectives, focusing both on British and international trends.

These trends and questions include:

  • Exploring the censorship of ideas and the erosion of universities as places of debate. What are the long-term effects of preventing alternative ideas from being aired and how does this impact the diversity of ideas essential to a university’s purpose as a space of academic freedom?
  • The more general question of what is academic freedom is also considered. What are its limits, what actions impose force on its possibilities, how does it shape our individual behaviours, where and when does power curtail scientific distance, and when did academic freedom move from insubordination toward control and what sorts of (emotional) people must academics become to function in this new academic world?
  • Providing a more historical lens an account of what really happened to the British university system between the late 1960s and today is also provided. What were the changes that took the system from its gains in the post social movement era to its situation today of the neoliberal university and how did the changes emerge?
  • In a similar vein we also tackle what happened to universities during the Thatcher era as they where subjected to processes of the competitive accumulation of Capital, and how as a result the Soviet-esque ‘command economy’ is a useful analogy for the neoliberal transformation of the university.
  • We also look at the financialisation of the academic book publishing industry and raise questions about changes in the production cycle and ethos of academic publishing in the 21st century. What does the emergence of a franchise system within academic publishing suggest has happened to the traditional purpose of academic knowledge production, academic disciplines and academic authors themselves?
  • And finally, in this new academic marketplace of academic entrepreneurs, competitive labour and audit cultures what happens to academic lecturers? How are they controlled, how is the precarisation of their labour used to shape and tame them in line with managerial demands, and who wins in the battle between bureaucracy and academic knowledge production?

Taken together we hope these various contributions to the question of academic freedom in the 21st century raise questions, provide context and stimulate thinking.

Contributors to this series

Sam Binkley_opt

Sam Binkley is associate professor of sociology at Emerson College, Boston. His research examines the various ways in which subjectivity is produced in contemporary society through lifestyle literatures and popular texts. Drawing on Michel Foucault’s notions of biopower and governmentality, but also from a range of critical theorists, he has undertaken studies into self help literature and popular psychology, lifestyle movements of the 1970s, racism and anti-racism, and the emotional cultures of neoliberalism, all with an eye toward the fashioning of subjectivity in these contexts. In addition to authoring two research monographs; Happiness as Enterprise: An Essay on Neoliberal Life (SUNY) and Getting Loose: Lifestyle Consumption in the 1970s (Duke), he has published articles in such journals as History of Human Sciences, Time and Society, Cultural Studies, Rethinking Marxism, The European Journal of Cultural Studies and the Journal for Cultural Research. He currently serves as co-editor of the journal Foucault Studies.

Craig Brandist

Craig Brandist is professor of cultural theory and intellectual history in the Department of Russian and Slavonic Studies at the University of Sheffield, where he is also president of the Sheffield University and College Union. He started at Sheffield in 1997, and from 2003-2009 directed the AHRC-funded project The Rise of Sociological Linguistics in the Soviet Union, 1917–1938: Institutions, Ideas and Agendas. Brandist’s research current focuses on the history of cultural theory, particularly as it was affected by the Russian Revolution and its subsequent degeneration, and his latest monograph is The Dimensions of Hegemony: Language, Culture and Politics in Revolutionary Russia.

Dylan Kerrigan

Dylan Kerrigan is a lecturer in anthropology and political sociology at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine campus, Trinidad and Tobago. He is particularly concerned with power, the shifts that occur and how society adjusts or transforms as a result. His most recent published works include the co-authored book Transnational Popular Psychology and the Global Self Help Industry: The Politics of Contemporary Social Change, research into the relationship between white collar crime and everyday corruption in the Trinidad published in Gangs of the Caribbean, and a recent chapter describing Trinidad on the Path to Independence in the collection In the Fires of Hope.


Daniel Nehring is senior lecturer in sociology at the Institute of Humanities and Creative Arts at the University of Worcester and previously worked at Pusan National University in South Korea. Over the past decade, he has done extensive research on transnational self-help cultures, as reflected in his new book (with Emmanuel Alvarado, Eric C. Hendriks and Dylan Kerrigan, Transnational Popular Psychology and the Global Self-Help Industry (Palgrave Macmillan). Over the last few years, he has explored the contours of academic life under neoliberal hegemony, which he covers in his blog for Social Science Space.

Hugo Radice_opt

Hugo Radice is a political economist. Now retired after teaching at the University of Leeds for 30 years, he continues to research and write about contemporary capitalism from a socialist standpoint. He is also an active member of the UK’s Labour Party. For his recent publications, including his 2014 books Global Capitalism: Selected Essays and The European Union After the Crisis, please visit

Jo Williams_opt

Joanna Williams has taught in schools, further and higher education for more than 20 years. Most recently she was senior lecturer in higher education at the University of Kent and director of the University’s Centre for the Study of Higher Education. She is the author of Consuming Higher Education, Why Learning Can’t Be Bought (Bloomsbury, 2012) and Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity, Confronting the Fear of Knowledge (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). Williams is the education editor of Spiked and a frequent contributor to British and international education debates, most especially in the Times Higher Education, the Telegraph and Guardian.

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“Britain’s debate about its departure from the European Union was marked by wholehearted anti-intellectual defamations of ‘experts’ and claims about immigration that contradict published research”
I do not agree: