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Over two thirds of UK social scientists warn their academic freedom is under threat, new study shows

Academics have said their freedom is under threat with evidence suggesting one of the reasons for this concern is the effect of internationalisation including risks associated with the rising influence of authoritarian states such as China.

Half of those who took part in a major new study said they felt their freedom to select teaching content was under threat. Half of politics and international scholars questioned said their freedom to conduct research was under threat, and 39 per cent said they thought institutional censorship was a problem.

When asked if academic freedom was discussed in universities, 74 per cent of teaching and research said it was.

More than two thirds (67 per cent) of respondents indicated academic freedom was under threat in higher education.

About 73 per cent of respondents said they did not self-censor when teaching students from autocratic states in the UK. A majority (58 per cent) said the nationality of their students did not constrain class content with 23 per cent saying that it does.

Three-quarters of respondents said academics should not accept funding from foreign entities or governments that do not respect human rights. A total of 59 per cent said they did not feel pressured to collaborate with non-democratic partners in the aftermath of Brexit, while 10 per cent said they did.

The survey was distributed to 25,000 academics in the UK at the end of 2020 and 1,500 took part. Although the response rate was low at around 6 per cent, the number and distribution of responses suggest that they are representative.

The research was conducted by Tena Prelec from the University of Oxford and the University of Exeter, Saipira Furstenberg from the University of Portsmouth and John Heathershaw and Catarina Thomson from the University of Exeter.

Dr Prelec said: “Concern among academics in politics and international relations could be higher because they are more exposed to sensitivities arising when teaching students from and conducting research in autocracies. Furthermore, alongside business and law, these departments have often expanded most rapidly for both domestic and international students, perhaps creating an impression among staff that market demand trumps the maintenance of standards and academic freedom. This is clearest when considering the amount of private donations, which have tripled in the UK and Ireland over the past decade, while funds originating from public investment and EU research grants have decreased.”

A total of 42 per cent of academics said they considered freedom to select teaching content to be currently at risk in UK universities compared to 58 per cent among those specialising in European stages, 61 per cent for those researching China, and 52 per cent among those researching Africa.

A total of 14 per cent said they had self-censored when reporting fieldwork, and 75 per cent said they hadn’t. For those researching European countries this was 19 per cent and 68 per cent. For those researching Africa this was 26 per cent and 60 per cent, and for China 22 per cent and 64 per cent.

Almost two thirds (65 per cent) of respondents said they do not know if their department provides guidelines on academic freedom.

A total of 41 per cent of academics specialising in China said they had self-censored when teaching students from authoritarian regimes, compared to 39 per cent for those specialising in Africa and 33 per cent specialising in Europe. The average for all respondents was 20 per cent.

20 per cent of those questioned said they had self-censored when teaching students from autocratic states in the UK, and 73 per cent said they hadn’t. This rose to 33 per cent for scholars working on Europe, 39 per cent for those working on Africa and 41 per cent for those working on China.

Over 6 per cent of respondents agreed that UK universities might introduce codes of conduct to protect academic freedom in international partnerships, while 17 per cent were opposed.

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