UCU survey belies claim that there is no “free-speech problem” in UK universities.

A new University and College Union study shows that 56% of union members believe that academic freedom in the UK is in decline. 

The University and College Union (UCU) is the largest academic union in the UK. In 2021, it commissioned a study on the effect of “digitally-enabled management practices, metrics and the culture of continuous evaluation” on academic freedom in the UK. The study canvassed academic members of UCU, over 2100 of whom responded. It was conducted by Prof. Terence Karran and Dr. Chavan Kissoon, both academics at the University of Lincoln’s School of Education. It has now been published

The study’s phrase “digitally-enabled management practices, metrics and the culture of continuous evaluation” refers (primarily) to schemes for ranking universities and academics. These include, among others, the National Student Survey (NSS), which aims to measure student satisfaction, the Research Excellence Framework (REF), which aims to measure the quality of research and internal culture of universities, and the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) which aims to measure the quality of teaching at universities. 

There are long-standing concerns that the use of schemes such as the REF, the TEF and the NSS undermine academic freedom. Success in the REF determines how much funding universities receive, and researchers report pressure from managers to conduct “high impact” work that scores highly within requirements for submission to the REF. Recently, it has been announced that the REF – which is ultimately under the control of the government’s Department for Business and Trade – will be used to shape the internal culture of universities. Read CAF’s report on why this threatens academic freedom here. The UCU study found that 82.4% of respondents “somewhat disagreed”, or “strongly disagreed”, that the use of assessment measures such as the REF had enabled greater academic freedom (page 95). 

Similarly, it has been argued that the NSS incentivises universities to treat education as a consumer product, where students are consumers to be “satisfied”. Multiple academics report pressure within universities to avoid teaching topics to which students may object. Michelle Shipworth, in her interview with CAF, describes in detail how her head of department forbade her to teach a module, apparently fearing that dissatisfaction with it would diminish the university’s income from foreign students. The UCU study found that 83.8% of respondents “somewhat disagreed”, or “strongly disagreed”, that the use of assessment measures such as the NSS had enabled greater academic freedom (page 97). 

It is unfortunate that the UCU study focuses solely on the effects of “digitally-enabled management practices” such as the REF and NSS. It conveniently obscures the fact that in recent years the UCU itself has repeatedly worked to restrict academic freedom. For instance, the Edinburgh UCU branch attempted to ban the launch of a gender-critical book at Edinburgh University. One of the branch’s committee members, Johnny Dennis, who admitted  that he had not read the book, was filmed at a protest outside the launch thrusting his groin towards a female academic attempting to enter. Read the CAF report here. In a further example, the Queen Mary University of London branch has called on the university to violate its neutrality by demanding a ceasefire in the war in Gaza. UCU leadership has not criticised such actions by its branches. It appears that UCU’s claim that “defending academic freedom is high priority for UCU” is at best confused, at worst insincere. 

But despite these inconsistences, the UCU survey is a valuable document. 56.8 per cent of its respondents either “strongly agree” or “somewhat agree” that freedom in teaching has declined in recent years (page 81). 51.7 percent of respondents either “strongly agree” or “somewhat agree” that freedom in research has declined in recent years (page 82). These results explode the common claim that there is no “free-speech problem” in UK universities. A strong majority of members of the largest university trade union believe that academic freedom is in decline. 

Threats to academic freedom today are numerous, and have multiple causes. The commercialisation of universities, highlighted by the UCU, is only one such cause.