Too tight a grip will choke

Creep­ing po­lit­i­cal in­ter­fer­ence in uni­ver­si­ties, from the UK to Hun­gary and the US, is part of a wor­ry­ing shift in at­ti­tudes to­wards higher ed­u­ca­tion

THE (Times Higher Education) - - LEADER - john.gill@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­

The vic­tory of Al­lied forces in the Sec­ond World War was not only the defin­ing mo­ment of the mod­ern age, it was also con­clu­sive proof of the “in­her­ent in­ef­fi­cien­cies of dic­ta­tor­ship and the in­her­ent ef­fi­cien­cies of free­dom”.

So said J. K. Gal­braith, speak­ing like a true econ­o­mist, in an ar­ti­cle pub­lished in 1945.

It’s an ar­gu­ment that could be wheeled out on be­half of uni­ver­si­ties, in which a com­mit­ment to aca­demic free­dom and in­sti­tu­tional au­ton­omy is held sa­cred.

These free­doms, op­er­at­ing within cer­tain frame­works, are so cen­tral to our un­der­stand­ing of higher ed­u­ca­tion in the world’s lead­ing sys­tems that it might seem un­nec­es­sary to re­state the case.

But a read­ing of the barom­e­ter in uni­ver­si­ties will show that pres­sure has been build­ing in re­cent years.

Govern­ments take an in­creas­ing in­ter­est in re­search pri­or­i­ties and out­puts; fee­pay­ing stu­dents ex­ert pres­sure from be­low; and hos­tile me­dia and ris­ing pop­ulism all reg­is­ter.

So too do chal­lenges from coun­tries that do not share demo­cratic ideals, as il­lus­trated by the dis­turb­ing cen­sor­ship of hun­dreds of ar­ti­cles on the Chi­nese web­site of a Cam­bridge Univer­sity Press jour­nal, China Quar­terly, at the in­sis­tence of lo­cal im­port agen­cies.

Its ini­tial ac­qui­es­cence raised ur­gent ques­tions about how academia should han­dle in­ter­fer­ence of this sort: is some free­dom bet­ter than none, or are there red lines to be drawn?

Else­where in our news pages, we re­port on an­other aca­demic free­dom de­bate: the on­go­ing bat­tle of Left vs Right, and the way that uni­ver­si­ties cope with speak­ers from the un­savoury po­lit­i­cal fringe.

The is­sue has been reignited by re­cent clashes in Char­lottesville, home of the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia, sparked by vi­o­lent protests from far­right groups.

As we re­port, sev­eral US uni­ver­si­ties have re­sponded by block­ing planned ap­pear­ances by one white su­prem­a­cist on safety grounds, while in­sist­ing that they re­main com­mit­ted to free­dom of speech.

Again, this raises the tricky ques­tion of how un­fet­tered cer­tain free­doms should be, and high­lights that these ten­sions and pres­sures be­ing felt by in­sti­tu­tions are gen­er­ated not only out­side cam­puses but ex­ist within univer­sity com­mu­ni­ties them­selves.

In a sep­a­rate in­ter­view this week, Carol Christ, the new chan­cel­lor of the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, ad­dresses her iconic in­sti­tu­tion’s at­ti­tude to free speech, in light of re­cent con­tro­ver­sies.

Christ’s in­ten­tion is to make this a cen­tral theme across the univer­sity for the com­ing aca­demic year, with a re­newed com­mit­ment based on her be­lief that free­dom of speech is some­thing that “peo­ple from all po­lit­i­cal per­sua­sions have a deep vested in­ter­est in”.

On the sub­ject of po­lit­i­cal vested in­ter­ests, it’s worth re­mem­ber­ing that one of Don­ald Trump’s many Twit­ter in­ter­ven­tions as US pres­i­dent in­volved a di­rect threat to Berke­ley’s funding fol­low­ing the can­cel­la­tion of a talk by a right­wing provo­ca­teur ear­lier this year.

In our cover story, mean­while, we re­port from Hun­gary on one of the most high­pro­file chal­lenges to univer­sity au­ton­omy over the past year.

Our Europe correspondent trav­els to Bu­dapest to in­ves­ti­gate the im­pli­ca­tions of prime min­is­ter Vik­tor Or­bán’s re­forms, the mo­ti­va­tions be­hind them and other as­pects of what crit­ics see as creep­ing po­lit­i­cal con­trols on uni­ver­si­ties.

These in­clude the ap­point­ment of new chan­cel­lors, ap­pointed di­rectly by Or­bán, who over­see spend­ing and have the fi­nal say on re­cruit­ment, salaries and pro­mo­tions, and min­istry­ap­pointed trustees who in­tro­duce an­other el­e­ment of state over­sight.

Back in the UK, such di­rect and in­sid­i­ous intervention is anath­ema. But there will be those who sense a wor­ry­ing shift in at­ti­tudes to­wards higher ed­u­ca­tion, not least in the on­go­ing me­dia neg­a­tiv­ity that is co­a­lesc­ing into a gen­er­alised view that “some­thing must be done about the uni­ver­si­ties”.

As cen­tres of in­flu­ence out­side gov­ern­ment, uni­ver­si­ties will al­ways be tar­gets for con­trol.

But the re­al­ity is that, in spite of those pres­sures, uni­ver­si­ties in the world’s lead­ing sys­tems, in­clud­ing the UK, have far more au­ton­omy than is of­ten ac­knowl­edged

– to the ex­tent that even se­nior and ex­pe­ri­enced politi­cians seem shocked to learn that they can­not, for ex­am­ple, or­der them to pay their vice­chan­cel­lors less.

That (the au­ton­omy, not the in­flated pay) is as it should be, and as it must re­main

– with the pro­viso that it is cou­pled with strong gov­er­nance, trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity.

Within that frame­work, au­ton­omy and free­dom are es­sen­tial; they don’t just con­trib­ute to the ef­fi­ciency of re­search and higher ed­u­ca­tion, they are in­te­gral to their suc­cess.

New chan­cel­lors, ap­pointed di­rectly by the Hun­gar­ian prime min­is­ter, over­see spend­ing and have the fi­nal say on re­cruit­ment, salaries and pro­mo­tions

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