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"Academic Freedom: A Provocation?"

Royal Irish Academy, Dawson Street

10 June 2013

Uachtaráin na hÉireann Micheal D Higgins, Members of the Academy, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to thank Professor Lizbeth Goodman for the invitation to address you this afternoon. When Lizbeth asked me to speak, she said I could give a ‘provocation’ as much as a talk and I’ve taken her at her word – so my title today is “Academic freedom: a provocation?” – and rather than delivering a sustained argument, my intention is to make a number of provoking comments which, I hope, can stimulate debate afterwards.

I should say that academic freedom is something I’ve been thinking about a lot and have touched on in a number of speeches. Some of the current tendencies to undervalue academic freedom are the product of recent developments, and like anyone dealing with the ‘new world order’ of austerity, so to speak, I’m feeling my way here. I’d like also to say at the outset that I can only speak as Provost of Trinity in my remarks that follow, but I’d like to open up this debate to the whole sector. 

***Academic Freedom in the Trinity Statutes***

In Trinity College Dublin, we’ve written academic freedom into our Statutes. I won’t quote the entirety of the passage – it takes up three paragraphs – but we define academic freedom as: “The freedom, subject to the norms of scholarly inquiry, to conduct research, teach, speak, and publish without interference or penalty, no matter where the search for truth and understanding may lead.”

And the passage ends:The College will seek to develop the search for truth as a part of the experience of teaching and learning, relying not on the imposition of authority or acceptance of received knowledge but rather on the exercise of the critical faculties of the human mind.”

These statements are I think, uncontroversial. I expect most good universities have defined academic freedom in similar terms. But however universities define academic freedom, it’s not something that commands attention day-to-day … either within the university or outside. Sometimes academic freedom is equated with freedom of speech - we tend to think that as long as academics are not being censored outright or imprisoned for their views, then academic freedom is intact. We overlook the more subtle, the more insidious, threats.

So I think it’s helpful to start by defining academic freedom more precisely.

***Academic freedom: Scholarly Inquiry***

If you look at the Statutes which I’ve just quoted, academics claim the freedom to “research, teach, speak, and publish without interference or penalty, subject to the norms of scholarly inquiry.”

That ‘scholarly inquiry’ is crucial. We don’t claim the freedom to research, teach and publish on any subject. I’m an engineer. If I were to start spouting on, say, theology or French literature, well I could evoke my right to freedom of speech, but I couldn’t evoke academic freedom, because I’d be talking about something outside my expertise and using no ‘norms of scholarly inquiry’ to substantiate my argument.

So academic freedom starts with curtailment. We claim the freedom to research, teach, speak, and publish only in those areas to which we’ve devoted profound study, on which we have an expertise that we can share our knowledge for the public good, knowledge that is situated within the rigorous intellectual tradition of our discipline.  Our sense of that tradition, of all the thinkers in our discipline who have come before us, makes us aware of academic freedom as a privilege and as something hard-won - an outcome of a thorough grounding as researchers and scholars in our field. In fact, academic freedom brings such a weight of responsibility that it’s not something we claim lightly - but we know that it’s not something we can escape. It is part and parcel of university life.

***The Academic Agenda***

This is a crucial point because when we talk about “the freedom to conduct research, teach, speak, and publish”, what we’re really talking about is the freedom to set the academic agenda – that is, the freedom to decide what and how to research and teach.

I emphasise ‘research and teach’ because in Trinity, as in other research-led universities, the two are inextricable – they do not run along separate tracks. What we research ultimately decides what we teach – and what we teach inspires the research our students get involved with.

It may seem, again, uncontroversial to claim the freedom to set the academic agenda, but this entails the freedom to decide on which staff to appoint to academic posts and how to remunerate them, subject of course to sound budgetary discipline. Ultimately who you appoint determines the research direction and the curricula of your institution.

***Constraints: Government***

I became Provost of Trinity just under two years ago, and at my inaugural speech in September 2011, I raised concerns about what I called ‘constraints acting on higher education’. Let me quote what I said then:

“To compete globally, I need to have flexibility and decision-making powers – the same flexibility that other presidents of leading universities can count on. Particularly with regard to hiring and promotions. At the moment I need to get permission for what I do.”

In the two years since that speech, things haven’t got better. The Universities Amendments Bill and the Employment Control Framework represent more control, tying the hands of universities and preventing us from competing globally. And global competition between universities , and between cities in which they are embedded, is not a myth, certainly not in a world where talent – of staff and students – is increasingly highly mobile.

When a university’s independence to take decisions on hiring, remuneration, research funding and tuition fees is curtailed, then the direction of third level education is being subtly controlled. This means that universities are not free to set their academic agendas, and to add maximum value to the society in which they are embedded. Their academic freedom is insidiously compromised.

When I say ‘insidious’ - I don’t mean it in the sense of ‘treacherous’ or ‘perfidious’ but in the sense of ‘gradual, subtle, but harmful’. I am sure that those who propose and back the Employment Control Framework and the Universities Bill do not intend to threaten academic freedom. I’m sure they’re motivated by a sense of doing good for the country in these difficult times. But I do think the full implications of these measures simply haven’t been considered.

I believe these measures are proposed because people are unclear about what universities are accountable for, and who they should be accountable to.

***Universities in the Public Good***

An alternate sub-title for today’s speech, suggested by the organisers, was ‘Whose universities are they anyway?’

I didn’t go with this title because I think it’s too explosive to try and answer this question – Ireland is not ready for such a debate.  

Do universities belong to the government? Do they belong to the people? To the students? Are they here to serve the market and produce commercial research?

There are all kinds of models for higher education. There’s the ‘dirigiste’ model - one where government identifies skills gaps in the market and directs universities to concentrate resources on those disciplines currently in demand, while cutting off resources to disciplines where there is less immediate need. Government is the owner, the planner.

On the other hand there’s the ‘student-driven’ model, which treats universities as service-providers and students as the end-users who get to decide what’s working and what isn’t. The student, thought of as a customer, drives the system.

Do universities belong to students or to government? When I consider the role of universities, my answer always comes back to their dual function.

Universities confer both a private and a public good. They confer a private benefit on the individual student who gains the skills to pursue an interesting career and lead a fulfilling life; and they confer a public benefit in terms of educating the citizens and workers who provide essential services, drive the economy, and safeguard democracy.

So whose universities are they anyway? They are society’s universities. They operate in the public interest. They are among the key civic institutions – like the judiciary or the media - which keep society going, and without which it is quite impossible to imagine a functioning modern democracy.

***Separation of Powers***

You are all familiar with Montesquieu’s separation of powers into the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary. And you all know that to these three, was added a ‘fourth estate’ – the press or the media, which should also act independently in a democracy. It seems that Edmund Burke was the first to use ‘fourth estate’ to describe the press in 1787. I’m delighted a Trinity alumnus contributed to this great debate.

Montesquieu came up with three powers and Burke added a fourth, but of course it’s not about numbers. What counts is proper ‘separation’ between the different actors in civic society. Each must function independently, and must be enabled - indeed compelled - to take responsibility for their actions.

Industry could be another example of such democratic players - in democracies, we don’t see State-control of industry as the best route to economic success. And another example is universities and centres of higher learning.

So when we talk about the independence of universities and the freedom to set the academic agenda we’re tapping into something deep and fundamental to the way our democracies are run.

Universities today are expected to play a key role in driving the economy. They are encouraged to commercialise research and grow the ‘innovation ecosystem’. This is unequivocally a good thing. But curtailing in the independence and room for manoeuvre, and academic freedom, of universities has a distortionary effect, preventing them from sustaining the cultural ecosystem in which they exist.

***No Innovation Without Independence***

Good universities, such as Trinity and other Irish universities, seek to develop critical thinking, independence and initiative in students. They do this in a variety of ways, such as through original research, extracurricular activities, and encouraging innovation.

There is consensus that the skills gained are beneficial to the individual and to society at large. Everyone is agreed on the need to nurture independent thinking and leadership skills in students, and on the need for university research to feed into the economy.

But how can universities encourage independence and responsibility in students, unless they are themselves independent and accountable? How can they encourage decision-making skills when they cannot themselves take decisions on staff hiring, budgets, and research? How can they innovate and come up with exciting new products and services in an environment of control and curtailment?

If you look at the great universities of the world, the universities that support vibrant and successful innovation ecosystems, what characterises them is a high degree of autonomy. I could go so far as to state that universities with the ability to act independently is a key indicator of innovation. This is recognised even in countries where independent autonomous universities would not have been the tradition – in this respect Ireland seems to be, in relative terms, going in reverse.

This is not only to do with mentoring innovative, independent students. It reaches beyond to the question of the long-term research agenda.

***Research: Long-Term Sustainability***

We all know how research funding works. You can effectively silence commercially unviable research, not through censoring it, but through denying it funds, and one insidious way to do this is to separate it from the teaching function.

That said, we aren’t naïve and utopic - we know it’s impossible to prevent inequality in funding. At any given moment in history there’s always going to be a particular demand for particular research. That’s just what happens.

But if we accept this, we also accept that what is profitable, important, and in demand today, may not be so tomorrow.

Today, as we suffer the most savage global recession of the post-war period, we understand only too well the problem of focussing on short-term profit. Corporations and institutions round the world now seek long-term sustainability. And as third-level research feeds more directly into the economy than ever before, the need for long-term sustainability in research becomes ever more pressing.

Who can say which research will prove important in the future? The answer is, of course, that no individual, corporation, or institution can claim to hold the key to long-term sustainability.

But it’s fair to say that experience and expertise go a long way. An excellent researcher is in the best position to predict what might be long-term trends and growth areas in his or her discipline. He or she can identify the innovations which may prove ground-breaking.

When it comes to the research which will power the future, universities collectively have great experience and expertise. Of course there’s always an element of risk, but there’s less risk than when this decision is taken out of their hands and given to people without direct responsibility for it, for university teaching.

This, of course, ties into what I said about academic freedom as a hard-won privilege. Universities claim the freedom to set the academic agenda, including the research agenda, not from any sense of entitlement, but because we know we are best positioned to determine the academic agenda so as it delivers the public good of higher education.  Universities are also, I believe, well-armoured against the seduction of the short-term.

Successful knowledge economies are those that put trust in their universities and research centres. They trust that what may look like strange, maverick research decisions will eventually add to the sum of human knowledge andas well as wealth creation – and lead mabye in the end to some wisdom as well. Successful knowledge economies give their universities freedom to set their own academic agenda.


I believe that in Ireland we understand the importance of an independent university sector. All our traditions are geared towards autonomy and independence. This can be to Ireland’s great advantage in a time when higher education is becoming even more important to our prosperity and well-being.

Edmund Burke coined the phrase ‘Fourth Estate’ at a time when the press was gathering importance and becoming a professional force. Naturally, governments sought to influence this new force, and sometimes succeeded. But the press was able to articulate the value of its being separate and independent of government.

Today, with the growth of online media, the fourth estate faces unprecedented challenges. But it is helped in confronting those challenges by the distinct sense of identity it has carved out over the past two hundred and fifty years.

The fourth estate has been able to do this because it understands its importance as a key democratic player. It understands that the public interest is best served by press autonomy. It understands that media is one of those ‘powers’, like the judiciary, which must operate freely if democracy is to operate well. The phrase “an attack on the freedom of the press” is a rallying cry – the implications are immediately understood by all.

I’d like to see universities gaining this kind of identity. I’m not saying we should refer to ourselves as the fifth estate, but the phrase “an attack on the freedom of the press” resonates in our society and my provocation to you is now can we make “an attack on the freedom of universities” resonate similarly. Isn’t it a profound threat to education, research, and ideas when universities come under government control.

Whose universities are they anyway? They are universities for all society, acting in the public interest, according to the best judgement, experience, and expertise of their governing boards and academic councils, to use academic freedom in an accountable way for the public good. Like all key democratic players, universities need to have the trust of the public to operate effectively.

I believe our universities have that trust. The standard of our third level, the excellence of our graduates is something the whole country takes pride in. It’s up to the sector to draw on that pride and trust to articulate the vital importance of what we do. We must come together to uphold academic freedom - in the full understanding that such freedom is inseparable from the freedom to act independently in the best interests of those the usiversity is designed to serve.

Thank you.

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