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These figures reveal heightened concern about academic freedom with around 70 per cent of social scientists saying they considered it to be under threat at UK universities.

Academics in favour of universities refusing funding from nations connected to human rights concerns, survey shows

Academics are in favour of universities refusing funding from foreign organisations and individuals or nations linked with human rights concerns, a new survey of over 1,500 social scientists based in UK universities shows.

Three quarters – 75 per cent – of people who took part in the research said academics in UK universities should not accept money from foreign entities or governments who do not respect human rights.

A majority – 56 per cent – agreed universities should end partnerships and raise concerns with a national regulator or ombudsperson if an external partner is found to be pressuring the university by attempting to change the content of a degree programme.

The poll was conducted by academics from the universities of Exeter and Oxford in association with the Academic Freedom and Internationalisation Working Group (AFIWG), which is made up of eight academics from Edinburgh, Exeter, London (School of Advanced Study, Goldsmiths, LSE, and KCL), Lincoln, and Oxford. AFIWG is supported by Scholars at Risk, the Council for At-Risk Academics, and the All-Party Parliamentary Human Rights Group. 

The AFIWG has written a draft model code of conduct to assist universities in developing relevant policies. A majority of respondents (over 60 per cent) said they favour the adoption of such a code of conduct within their institution.

However, there was also a great deal of uncertainty from respondents with significant minorities answering “don’t know” to the question about a new code.  Furthermore, 65 per cent declared that they didn’t know whether their departments had guidelines on academic freedom.

Professor John Heathershaw, from the University of Exeter and the AFIWG, who led the research, said: “The issue of foreign interference in UK universities is complex, and this research shows people have wide-ranging concerns about external and especially internal attempts to curb academic freedom. UK social scientists are most concerned about how the changing nature of global higher education is exposing them to risk and how their institutions are managing risk, rather than about the foreign ‘threats’ themselves.”

Dr Tena Prelec, from the University of Oxford and also a member of the AFIWG, said: “The combination of high concern and uncertainty demonstrate the need for academics to be more involved in the governance of their institutions. Top-down governance, reputation management, and even the extension of formal ethics are insufficient solutions in themselves. A better way forward is bottom-up, and should include the use of a code of conduct by staff and students to ensure transparency and accountability.”

These figures reveal heightened concern about academic freedom with around 70 per cent of social scientists saying they considered it to be under threat at UK universities.

A total of 39 per cent expressed concern about the freedom of academics to conduct research without commercial or political interference, while 30 per cent felt academic freedom was under threat from institutional censorship.

The extent to which academics feel pressure to self-censor deserves greater attention. While a strong majority (73 per cent) said they do not self-censor when teaching students from autocratic states, about one in five (20 per cent) said they did. About one in six (15 per cent) said they self-censored when reporting fieldwork findings. While a majority of those who took part in the study – 58 per cent – said the nationality of their students did not have an impact on the content of their teaching, approximately one in four (23 per cent) said it did.

Date: 12 November 2020

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