Quarter of UK Professors “Bullied Over Scholarly Views”

BY HANK REICHMAN

Almost one in four lecturers at universities in the United Kingdom claims to have been subjected to bullying by colleagues over their academic views, a recently published survey suggests.  Of 2,300 people who responded to a poll on academic freedom, 23 per cent said they had suffered workplace bullying on account of their scholarly views, while 27 per cent claimed that they had faced “psychological pressure” over their opinions.

According to a May 25 report in Times Higher Education, “Eleven per cent of respondents also claimed that they had faced or been threatened with some sort of disciplinary action regarding their academic views, such as ‘dismissal for bringing the university into disrepute’, written warnings, poor evaluations, denial of sabbatical leave and denial of promotion.

“Although many had not suffered overt pressure from colleagues, others reported feeling the need to “self-censor” their views to avoid conflict with management or peers, with 36 per cent saying that fear of reprisals had caused them to refrain from publishing, teaching or talking about a particular topic.”

According to the report, Academic Freedom in the UK: Legal and Normative Protection in a Comparative Context, some 56 per cent of scholars believe that the government’s controversial “research excellence framework” has diminished their individual academic freedom, while 70 per cent were concerned that the parallel “teaching excellence framework” would limit their ability to exercise academic freedom in the classroom by limiting their power to fail students or their scope to teach in a different or innovative manner.

The report, commissioned by the University and College Union (UCU) and produced by Professor Terence Karran and Lucy Mallinson of the University of Lincoln School of Education, calls for raising awareness about the legal meaning of academic freedom and its protection in other parts of the world, and for promoting changes in university policy and law in order to facilitate and guarantee this protection.

UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt said:

We believe a free society is one that is defined by robust self-governing institutions that regulate themselves within the law, but outside government influence. The launch of the report at UCU Congress also represents the start of a wider debate on what academic freedom is and how universities must defend it. This is a debate we hope the entire sector will get involved in.

The report is based on surveys of UCU members and scholars from the other 27 EU member states. Just two-fifths of UK academics (42%) said they felt they had an adequate working knowledge of the concept of academic freedom. Academic freedom is clearly important to scholars, however, as four-fifths of (81%) said they wanted more information on the concept of academic freedom.

Among the report’s key findings:

  • nearly a quarter (23%) of UK academics said they had been bullied by colleagues because of their views, compared to 14% of EU colleagues
  • two-fifths of UK academics (42%) said they have an adequate working knowledge of concept of academic freedom. A third (34%) said they did not.
  • 81% of UK academics wanted more information on academic freedom. Three-quarters (74%) of colleagues in other EU countries wanted more information.
  • UK academics feel they have far worse levels of protection of academic freedom than EU colleagues
  • over a quarter of UK academics say they have a low level of protection (28%), compared to 13% of EU colleagues.
  • half (49%) of EU academics say they have a high level of protection, compared to just 22% in the UK
  • half of UK academics (52%) compared with a third (34%) of EU colleagues say protection of academic freedom in their university has diminished in recent years
  • over two-fifths (43%) of UK academics say individual academic freedom for teaching has declined, compared to a quarter (25%) in EU countries
  • two-thirds of UK staff (67%) say employment protection for academic staff has declined in recent years, compared to just over half (54%) in EU countries

2 thoughts on “Quarter of UK Professors “Bullied Over Scholarly Views”

  1. It’s an important study, and I wish the same study was conducted in the US to get some comparable data. However, the most important parts of the study are the 10.6% who reported charges or threats of charges over their views, and the 36% who self-censor. Terms like “bullying” and “psychological pressure” are more dubious to me. I regard bullying as something children do to children, and a vague and ill-defined word to apply to the university setting, while “psychological pressure” can sometimes mean just criticizing someone.

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