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Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression

The following document has been prepared by Prof Raphael Cohen-Almagor as a discussion document and resource for all those interested in academic freedom and freedom of expression.

Academic Freedom

Recently, the education secretary has given universities a final warning to guard free speech or face legislation. Mr Gavin Williamson says that universities must make clear that intimidation of academics by students or others is unacceptable. He is considering greater regulation, possibly through law, if universities do not promote “unambiguous guidance” on academic freedom and free speech. One measure under consideration is to “clarify the duties” of students’ unions.[1]

Section 202 of The Education Reform Act 1988 accentuates the need

 (a)to ensure that academic staff have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institutions;

(b)to enable qualifying institutions to provide education, promote learning and engage in research efficiently and economically; and

(c)to apply the principles of justice and fairness.[2]

A 2017 UCU Report shows that UK academics believe they have worse levels of protection of academic freedom, compared to colleagues in other EU countries.[3]

UCU is committed to promoting and protecting the academic freedom of its members and of UK higher education institutions, and campaigns locally, nationally and internationally against threats to such freedoms.[4]


The UCU emphasises that academic freedom includes the right(s) to:[5]

  • freedom in teaching and discussion;
  • freedom in carrying out research without commercial or political interference;
  • freedom to disseminate and publish one’s research findings;
  • freedom from institutional censorship, including the right to express one’s opinion publicly about the institution or the education system in which one works; and
  • freedom to participate in professional and representative academic bodies, including trade unions.

Academic freedom is also bound up with broader civil liberties and human rights. Higher and further education staff have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, opinion, expression, association and assembly. Staff must not be hindered or impeded in exercising their civil rights as citizens, including the right to contribute to social change through free expression of opinion on matters of public interest. We recognise that this may touch upon sensitive or controversial issues.[6]

Academic freedom comes with the responsibility to respect the democratic rights and freedoms of others. UCU believes that academic and academic-related staff must play the pre-eminent role in determining the curriculum, assessment standards and research priorities. Collegial decision-making should encompass decisions regarding curricula, research, administration, outreach and community work, the allocation of resources and other related activities.[7]

Academic and academic-related staff must be free to criticise and publish without fear for their jobs. The House of Commons and The House of Lords Joint Committee on Human Rights said that “Universities are places where ideas are developed, a diverse range of interesting–and sometimes controversial–topics should be debated”. Students are among those particularly affected.[8]

Furthermore, the Equality and Human Rights Commission Guidelines holds:[9]

  • Everyone has the right to express and receive views and opinions.
  • Protecting freedom of expression is a legal requirement.
  • Freedom of expression is a key part of the higher education experience.

Sharing ideas freely is crucial for learning, and allows students to think critically, challenge and engage with different perspectives. Therefore, institutes of higher education should encourage discussion and exchange of views on difficult and controversial issues.[10]

The Office for Students (OfS) strongly supports free speech. It is expected from the OfS to intervene if problems emerged at particular institutions. The Joint Committee on Human Rights instructs that the OfS “should ensure that university policies do not inhibit legal free speech and are not overly burdensome”. It is the OfS role to examine reports on intimidation and issues related to freedom of speech.[11]

Academic freedom, therefore, is dependent upon proper employment conditions for higher and further education staff. Security of employment in the profession constitutes one of the major procedural safeguards of academic freedom and against arbitrary decisions by managements and funders. The values of freedom of expression and academic freedom should underline the academic work of the University of Hull as these are the raison d’être of any university.


[1] Rosemary Bennett, “Gavin Williamson gives universities final warning on free speech”, The Times (7 February 2020),

[2] The Education Reform Act 1988,

[3] Terence Karran and Lucy Mallinson, Academic Freedom in the U.K.: Legal and Normative Protection in a Comparative Context (Report for the University and College Union. Revised 7th May 2017).

[4] UCU statement on academic freedom,

[5] UCU statement on academic freedom,

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] The House of Commons and The House of Lords Joint Committee on Human Rights, Freedom of Speech in Universities (March 2018): 3.

[9] EHRC Guidance for Higher Education Providers, Freedom of Expression (2019): 6,

[10] Ibid, p. 9.

[11] The House of Commons and The House of Lords Joint Committee on Human Rights, Freedom of Speech in Universities (March 2018): 47.


Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression at Hull and in the United Kingdom at Large

Academic Freedom in the UK

Code of Conduct

Code of Practice on Freedom of Speech

Education Act 1986

Education No. 2 Act 1986-section 43

Education Reform Act 1988Education Reform Act 1988-section 202

Equality Act 2010-section 26

European Convention on Human Rights

Free speech House of Lords

Freedom of Speech in Universities Report 2017-2019

Freedom of speech in universities


Hull university-statutes

Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel