Alessio Guglielmi's Research and Teaching / Academic Freedom – letter to the Guardian

From: Alessio Guglielmi
To: The Guardian
Cc: Benjamin Ralph
Subject: Academic freedom in the Guardian university rankings
Date: 12/03/2018

Dear Guardian,

The present turmoil in British universities has deeper causes than the salaries and pensions of their employees. We all know that there is a conflict between the academics and the government: the latter does not understand the value of academic freedom. What is less clear is that the same conflict is also internal to the universities, between the senior management and the employees. This conflict is peculiar to the UK, not only because vice-chancellors get extravagant salaries, but also because they share with the government the idea that universities are a business. Given the intensity of the competition and the criteria which inform it, it is no surprise that British universities are led by greedy executive types: being a greedy executive is their job description.

Perhaps the Guardian can help change this with its very influential annual ranking of universities. Rankings favour competition, so they are part of the problem, but they could become part of the solution if they reveal what currently goes undetected. The idea is very simple: introducing into the rankings an assessment of academic freedom. What about asking the lecturers whether their management values knowledge and scholarship? Do they feel welcome to express their opinions? Do they participate in the running of their university? Are they free intellectuals who are encouraged to challenge authority? Are they supported in the pursuit of blue-sky, high-risk/high-reward research?

In the UK, the economic health of us lecturers is in the hands of our senior management, who determines our salaries and have the power to fire us. No wonder that most of us feel that we need to keep our head low and comply with the rules of the competition — rules that are set by people with little understanding of research and critical thinking. Research should be based on peer review, but every new research assessment exercise takes away a bit of peer review and introduces in its place metrics and short-term economic impact. The reason for our frustration is that we would like our senior management to understand all this and to be on our side, but they are not. This is not so in continental Europe, for example. In other advanced countries, whoever wants to pursue highly speculative, long-term research can do so without risking their jobs, and they are generally supported by their management.

You don't have to believe me: the Nobel prize Peter Higgs was saying similar things in an interview on the Guardian in 2013. Another example: the famous Fermat's Last Theorem was proved by the British mathematician Andrew Wiles (who also won major prizes), but he did so in the USA. There, Wiles was free to spend seven years on that theorem, undisturbed, without having to turn in four papers for some research assessment exercise, as would have been the case in Britain. We do not know if Fermat's theorem would have been proved if Wiles stayed in this country but, certainly, he would have been discouraged from tackling such an ambitious research.

Under the current regime, facilitated by our senior managers, an increasingly demoralised class of academics will only do what improves the measures. This is a sure recipe for conformism and incrementalism. A brilliant and creative university system is being destroyed under our eyes. We got to the point that universities almost exclusively hire researchers who are prudent and 'measurably productive' instead of bold and original. Unless we do something, the cautious followers will become the majority, the senior management and the government will go unchallenged, and the UK will lose its international leadership in academia. It is as simple as that.

There is some hope though. Students increasingly understand the problem. For example, my institution, the University of Bath, is currently occupied by students in support of the academics, and there is news that occupation is happening at other universities as well (Cambridge, Dundee, Exeter, Queen Mary, Reading). They fight against the marketisation of higher education. It is an unexpected and extraordinary phenomenon. Let us hope that it is the beginning of a reaction after decades of acquiescence. All this confirms that students would be interested in choosing their university based on the freedom of its academics.

There isn't much room for optimism. We should expect that our senior managers will continue to be bound by the metrics of this insane competition. However, perhaps we can improve those metrics, and by doing so we should expect to improve the management. In summary, I would urge the Guardian to help the progressive forces in our universities and introduce into their rankings some measure of academic freedom.

Alessio Guglielmi
Reader (Associate Professor)
University of Bath

This letter is sent in copy to Ben Ralph, of the Bath occupation, and is posted on my web site.

12.3.2018 Alessio Guglielmiemail