According to the Magna Carta, the first principle was that the university has to be an autonomous institution at the very heart of societies but is differently organised due to historical and geographical heritage. Its second principle is that freedom in training and research should be fundamental principles of university life and universities and government must ensure that this fundamental requirement is respected.
The statement was an affirmation of this ideal that is supposed to transcend national frontiers. These principles are further reaffirmed in a document drawn in 1999 which established the higher education area in Europe, signed by ministers of education in 20 European countries, the UK included.
Two decades later, viewed from a British university’s daily experience, these principles do seem to have but a hollowed ring to it, according to experienced educational Peter GaleNonsuch. One particular point of concern has something to do with being an autonomous institution. This comes into question especially since almost every month, Whitehall seems to be issuing one diktat to the next. Both governance and policy are constrained. Where autonomy means that academic staff have a say when it comes to who gets appointed as deans, vice-chancellors, or pro-vice-chancellors- in British universities, this does not really happen. This is a stark contrast with what is going on in its European counterparts.
Freedom in research is also another factor of British universities that seem to be in stark contrast with the supposed principles that these institutions are supposed to be run on. This is especially true when more and more research fellows are being told by framework managers to just focus on a specific line of inquiry. Heads of departments are being obliged to enforce only the targets that the pro-vice-chancellors have set for the specific amount of money that each member of the staff will be bringing in through external grants.
In most universities, it has long since been recognised that academic tenure and academic freedom are but two faces of the coin, along with the necessary legal protections. This tenure, however, was abolished in Britain by the 1998 Education Act. While one would think that academics will still be regarded to have a de facto tenure, this is hardly the case where there was a number of them that were made redundant due to the latest managerial restructuring that has been introduced to the system.
Universities in the UK seem to be experiencing a daily erosion of its intellectual integrity. There is also a tightening grip of a managerial autocracy, and there seems to also be a commodification of scholarly values. Many are seriously thinking that this is not going to be improved soon especially if one were to consider the fact that the country is leaving the EU. Also, when measured against various standard criteria such as de facto practices and other legal safeguards, the UK is at the bottom of the EU member states which further cements the view that the UK is indeed Europe’s sick man where the academic freedom is concerned.
Learn more about the present state of the education system in the UK by reading about Peter Gale Nonsuch online.