ARW: Professor Terence Karran explains academic freedom and why Sweden has a major problem

1:48 Why is it important to academics?  Because without academic freedom they cannot critique the existing body of knowledge. Therefore knowledge cannot move forward. And we now live in a knowledge economy. In order for knowledge to grow, academics need to have the freedom to be able to question the existing state of knowledge. …

4:10. You mentioned previously, the situation in Sweden.  It was unusual, but maybe not unexpected in that the previous, early, work had also shown that the level of legal protection in Sweden was not really very high by European standards. …

4:58  What was unusual was, academic freedom was protected in the constitutional documents in Sweden, but only for research.  There was no protection for teaching, which is very unusual. In fact, I think it’s probably unique across Europe for that to happen. So Sweden did seem to be very different.  But it may be the fact that Sweden has always been seen as a democratic state, and has operated in that way, and it may have been thought that there was no need to have a high level of legal protection because the de facto protection was there anyway. That’s one possibility. …

6:22  When it comes to teaching, again, it’s the freedom to say, right, if I’m teaching a particular subject as a lecturer. I will determine what is appropriate at this level. I will also determine how this should be taught. I may decide to have a lecture, I may decide to have something else. I will also determine to who it is taught. So I will have some opinion as to which students we may recruit for a course. I will then determine how the students should be assessed in terms of assuring that the knowledge that I’m giving them has been, as it were, imbued within them, and then how they should be graded. …

7:38  In Sweden it is common that you have a board which decides the literature for particular courses rather than the teacher him or herself.  What would be the ideal situation in terms of academic freedom, do you think?

7:49  Well in this instance it will be that whoever was undertaking the teaching they could determine exactly what the course entails, and how it should be taught. You mention having a board in Sweden, we don’t really have that, we have a validation document, which is normally agreed by the members of the staff who are going to teach a particular degree, but they may change over time, we will get new staff coming in who will have had no hand in determining what the content will be or how it’s going to be taught or assessed, and that, sometimes, can be a problem. But academics, surely, a professor geology knows best, what should be in a geology degree.

10:28  What do you see as the most important component of academic self-governance?

The most important component is surely the ability of academics to take part in the making of academic decisions, hopefully at every level within the institution. …

10:22  I can’t really see how someone whose background happens to be in finance or human relations can make decisions of an academic nature with any credibility. Now, they don’t really have that professional credibility. …

15:18 If you look at the Nordic states, there are two particular groups. you got Finland and Norway, and then at the bottom of the table, you’ve got Denmark and Sweden. So it is clear that although you as holistic, it is now being pulled apart.

16:15 …  and one has to ask, if one was a young, aspiring, and international academic, would one choose to go and work in one of these countries where academic freedom is clearly constrained.  And I would suggest that the answer is probably no. Interestingly, in the past, when academics were constrained by towns, as it were, or crown, what they tended to do was vote with their feet. So, going back a long time, we had the great dispersion from Paris which meant that scholars who moved to Oxford, and then to Cambridge, and then to the United States. So even in the past, very good scholars have often decided to work in institutions where they can enjoy academic freedom and produce work of the highest quality. …

17:14  It is statistically the case that those institutions that provide the best protection for academic freedom in the United Kingdom tend to occupy a higher position in the Times Higher ranking. So it is clear that there is a virtuous circle between the protection for academic freedom and academic excellence as measured by position in academic ranking tables, which is something, maybe, that rectors could take note of. …

19:28 [online survey] … What was unusual was that … for example, a large proportion, getting on to, with respect to Sweden, 14 percent for example said that they had been subjected to psychological pressure.  We are talking about 1 in 7, 1 in 8. The same occurred with respect to bullying by other members of staff.  Now, what happens as a result of this is that a large number of academics , instead of talking out, self-censor. And we did find that a large proportion actually self-censored. Now, one had to ask, one has to ask, is it possible to have freedom of speech in an institution when more than one person in ten is self-censoring? I would argue, that it is very difficult to claim that. …

22:21 In New Zealand, for example, there is a law that … states that universities should be “the critics and conscience of society.”  And in that sense they have a particular role to play with respect to, for example, making sure that governments are brought to heel when they have done something they shouldn’t, and I think academics should be allowed to carry on doing that. It is an important part of their work. And in that sense, academic freedom may be enjoyed by they few, but it is for the benefit of the many. … If it did have a 100% protection, society in general would benefit from this. Academics could make sure that politicians are held to account for their actions, and other people as well, including also themselves, clearly. …

25:05 I know for a fact that the work has had some impact in that when previous work was actually produced, it was reported in the Danish press.  And, in consequence of which, the minister for higher education came under criticism and pressure, and he indicated that, when looking at the tables, if the countries at the top of the list were communist countries, ex-communist countries, then he was glad that Denmark was not up there with them. And I pointed out that during the communist era, one group that quite frequently spoke out against the government were academics , and there was a retraction as a result of this. But more importantly, the Danish rectors’ association decided to mount an appeal to Unesco that the Danish did not meet the requirements of the 1997 Unesco recommendation on , of which Denmark was a signatory state. In consequence of that, the Danish government then felt obliged by the response it got from Unesco, to set up an international evaluation committee, that met, that decided that the law on academic freedom should be changed in Denmark. So it is possible that this research can have an impact, yes. …

26:47 … One of things that was very unusual about this entire finding was t, in terms of the de facto study, was that a large proportion of academics just do not know what academic freedom is. So one very important thing is awareness raising. So when you have, as we discovered in Sweden, nearly 2/3 of academics don’t really know what academic freedom is, a large majority don’t know whether it is an official document at their institution, a large number of them don’t know, for example, what the extent of the legal protection is. Clearly, unless academics know what their rights are … They would protect them if they knew what they are, but if they don’t know what they are, there is no way they can protect them. So awareness raising at all levels is something that academics could do, and should do, and so also should rectors. Bearing in mind that academic freedom is a hallmark of academic excellence.  Rectors should understand that one way in which they would benefit their own institution would be to indicate that the protection of academic freedom within their institution was  . Such ideals would also convince other members of the academic community to join such universities. So it would be a part of the branding of an institution. And I think rectors would see the value of it. I’m sure students themselves would see the value of academic freedom in so far as their lecturers would be able and willing, in fact, to engage in discourse above and beyond the normal parameters.

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