Analytic Quality Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2004-17, Analytic Quality Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 2 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2004–2017.


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Academic freedom

core definition

Academic freedom is the right for individual scholars to learn, teach, research and publish without interference or fear of reprisal.

explanatory context

Academic freedom has been a long standing concern of universities and Zimmer (2009) reminds us that Schleirmacher in 1808 informed the Humboltian tradition with his statement that 'the goal of university education as enabling students to become aware of the principles of scholarship, so that they themselves gradually acquire the ability to investigate, invent, and to give account'.


In some analyses of academic freedom, not only is the conept linked to the idea that academics may act without fear of reprisal but also that institutions should act positively to facilitate academic freedom.


A case that infringes academic freedom is reported by Gill (2008).


Academic freedom is related to, but distinct from, institutional autonomy.

analytical review

Vukasovic (2011), a Member of the Council of the Magna Charta Observatory, states:

Academic freedom I define as the right of the scholar in his/her teaching and research to follow truth where it seems to lead without fear of punishment for having violated some political, social or religious orthodoxy.

For CARA (formerly the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics) (2012):

Academic freedom is the principle which underpins and informs CARA's work defending the right of individuals to explore the world of ideas, literature and science unfettered by political, social or religious oppression, censorship, or sanction.

CARA points out that issues related to academic freedom are raised in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948, including:

Article 19: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

The UK University and College Union (2009), in the wake of growing concerns about the threats to free academic inquiry and opinion, published a statement on academic freedom, which says, inter alia:

Academic freedom includes the right(s) to:

— 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;
— 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.

Academic freedom also comes with the responsibility to respect the democratic rights and freedoms of others....

Academic freedom requires the development of open, democratic and collegial forms of institutional governance, including access to proper whistleblowing procedures.....

Academic and academic-related staff must be free to criticise and publish without fear for their jobs. 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 Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (2011) states:

What is academic freedom?
Academic freedom is the freedom to teach and conduct research in an academic environment. Academic freedom is fundamental to the mandate of universities to pursue truth, educate students and disseminate knowledge and understanding.

In teaching, academic freedom is fundamental to the protection of the rights of the teacher to teach and of the student to learn. In research and scholarship, it is critical to advancing knowledge. Academic freedom includes the right to freely communicate knowledge and the results of research and scholarship

Unlike the broader concept of freedom of speech, academic freedom must be based on institutional integrity, rigorous standards for enquiry and institutional autonomy, which allows universities to set their research and educational priorities.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers (2012) puts things in rather stronger terms:

Academic freedom is the life blood of the modern university. It is the right to teach, learn, study and publish free of orthodoxy or threat of reprisal and discrimination. It includes the right to criticize the university and the right to participate in its governance. Tenure provides a foundation for academic freedom by ensuring that academic staff cannot be dismissed without just cause and rigorous due process.

Robinson and Moulton (2002), define academic freedom in the following way:

Academic freedom is the freedom to teach and do research in any area without constraint, to discover and promulgate new ideas no matter how controversial. Like other accepted freedoms, academic freedom requires individuals, authorities, and governments not only to allow scholars to work without restraint but also to prevent any interference with this freedom. In addition, academic freedom seems to require something more: that society provide conditions in which new ideas can be generated, nurtured and freely exchanged.


In the United States, the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, remains a core element in the understanding of academic freedom; it states:

Academic Freedom: Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties; but research for pecuniary return should be based upon an understanding with the authorities of the institution.

Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.[1] Limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment.[2]

College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.[3]

The Association of American Colleges and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP, undated) have added, on their website, notes to this seminal statement as follows:

[1] The intent of this statement is not to discourage what is “controversial.” Controversy is at the heart of the free academic inquiry which the entire statement is designed to foster. The passage serves to underscore the need for teachers to avoid persistently intruding material which has no relation to their subject.

[2] Most church-related institutions no longer need or desire the departure from the principle of academic freedom implied in the 1940 Statement, and we do not now endorse such a departure.

[3] his paragraph is the subject of an interpretation adopted by the sponsors of the 1940 Statement immediately following its endorsement which reads as follows:

If the administration of a college or university feels that a teacher has not observed the admonitions ... of the section on Academic Freedom and believes that the extramural utterances of the teacher have been such as to raise grave doubts concerning the teacher’s fitness for his or her position, it may proceed to file charges [in relation to] Academic Tenure. In pressing such charges, the administration should remember that teachers are citizens and should be accorded the freedom of citizens. In such cases the administration must assume full responsibility, and the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Colleges are free to make an investigation.

... [Furthermore] “The controlling principle is that a faculty member’s expression of opinion as a citizen cannot constitute grounds for dismissal unless it clearly demonstrates the faculty member’s unfitness for his or her position. Extramural utterances rarely bear upon the faculty member’s fitness for the position. Moreover, a final decision should take into account the faculty member’s entire record as a teacher and scholar.”...

In October 2012, the American Association of University Professors and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (2012) issued an advisory statement on the relationship between accreditation and academic freedom:

The success of American higher education, including the high regard in which it is held worldwide, is explained in good measure by the observance of academic freedom. This freedom is manifested institutionally as colleges and universities seek to conduct their educational missions without inappropriate influence from external centers of power – public and private. It is manifested professionally as faculty seek to test and disseminate knowledge, to instill independence of mind and to engage in debate over institutional and public policies.

The two are often conjoined: A threat to one can threaten the other. In the 1950s, for example, the state imposition of loyalty oaths threatened to blunt both the ability of institutions to select faculty of promise and the ability of faculty to teach in accordance with professional standards. A half-century later, aggressive efforts to legislate “balance” in instruction would have made the courts into arbiters of institutional curricula and classroom instruction. Loyalty oaths were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in words strongly supportive of academic freedom. No state imposed a test of instructional “balance.” But these episodes emphasize that the consequences of the continuing struggle for institutional autonomy and faculty academic freedom bear directly on the quality of higher education.…

The following suggestions are offered about the role of accreditation with regard to academic freedom. They are not prescriptive. Given their historical responsibilities, the drafting organizations are uniquely situated to engage the accrediting community and the broader public in this conversation. Accrediting organizations, working with institutions and programs, are well-positioned to take the following actions to sustain and enhance the importance and centrality of academic freedom:

— Emphasize the principle of academic freedom in the context of accreditation review, stressing its fundamental meaning and essential value.

— Affirm the role that accreditation plays in the protection and advancement of academic freedom.

— Review current accreditation standards, policies and procedures with regard to academic freedom and assure that institutions and programs accord with high expectations in this vital area.

— At accreditation meetings and workshops, focus on challenges to academic freedom, with particular attention to the current climate and its effect on faculty, institutions and programs.

— Explore developing partnerships among accreditors to concentrate additional attention on academic freedom and further secure the commitment of the entire accreditation community.

Students for Academic Freedom (undated) also reinforce that this applies to students too:

Academic freedom consists in protecting the intellectual independence of professors, researchers and students in the pursuit of knowledge and the expression of ideas from interference by legislators or authorities within the institution itself. This means that no political, ideological or religious orthodoxy will be imposed on professors and researchers through the hiring or tenure or termination process, or through any other administrative means by the academic institution. Nor shall legislatures impose any such orthodoxy through their control of the university budget.

This protection includes students. From the first statement on academic freedom, it has been recognized that intellectual independence means the protection of students - as well as faculty - from the imposition of any orthodoxy of a political, religious or ideological nature.

associated issues

Evolution of academic freedom and cultural situatedness

A position paper to the University of Lincoln (2006) from its Ethics Committee, elaborates on the development and cultural specificity of the notion of acadmic freedom:

Academic freedom is a widely-used term within academic circles, but less frequently precisely defined. It is generally understood to refer to the freedom to pursue knowledge, through enquiry, debate and teaching, without restriction or interference either from one’s own institution or from public or state forces. There are, however, corresponding academic responsibilities which are often less clearly articulated, but are equally important in any consideration of the concept.

Historical definition

Essentially, academic freedom is rooted in the understanding that the academic enterprise is about the pursuit of knowledge and that knowledge is best pursued through rational and open enquiry.

The concept is both historically and culturally contingent. It developed in Western Europe, during the period conventionally known as the Enlightenment, as one consequence of the paradigmatic shift from the religious to the scientific method of analysing phenomena as the basis for the pursuit of knowledge, and remains fundamentally tied to this approach.

Mediaeval universities were, in Europe, religious foundations where enquiry operated within known and generally theologically confined boundaries. Answers were, in effect, determined by prior belief and traditional authority. This did not, of course, make the studies less scholarly or intellectually challenging, and it remains the basis for academic study in many other, often highly sophisticated, world cultures. Indeed, in Europe itself the new approach developed largely outside universities, particularly in this country, where the first entirely non-denominational seat of higher education was not founded until 1827, with the University of London. Nevertheless, 20th century academic freedom was predicated upon the reverse of such knowledge from authority.

Extensions of meaning

Academics call upon the concept of academic freedom for many different reasons, not all of them legitimate. Academic freedom, for example, is often defined by public, state or institutional freedoms, as for example in the USA, where definitions of academic freedom are extended to include the right of tenure in office. Academic freedom is quite commonly confused with other, more general civil rights, such as freedom of speech, which obscures its intellectual basis. Again, it has been claimed as the right to articulate, without contradiction, a set of beliefs, or even to impose these beliefs upon others.

Social definition

The US Supreme Court has ruled that academic freedom is the freedom for a university to “determine for itself upon academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it should be taught, and who may be admitted to study” .

This definition is rooted in the concept of institutional autonomy and the right of each institution to shape its own educational purpose. It makes clear that the institution’s choice should be on academic grounds, which might be seen to put some constraint upon, for example, faith or ideologically-based foundations. It does not, however, explicitly encompass the freedom that academics might expect to enjoy within their institution, that is the freedoms which institutions allow their academics and their students to pursue different lines of enquiry. More fundamentally, this approach, while including what might be called political and civil freedoms, does not engage with the intellectual rationale which underpins the concept. It is, therefore, limited and secondary.

Academic freedom and free speech

That quintessential figure of the Enlightenment, Voltaire, has been famously summarised thus, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” . This encapsulates what we take to be the right of free speech, but it is not quite the same as academic freedom. Both are of course necessarily constrained. But if the former is constrained by civic and legal considerations of courtesy, tolerance and anti-discriminatory and libel legislation, the latter is equally constrained by the obligation for all academic enquiry to be open-minded, conducted through rational enquiry, supported by demonstrable evidence, and unfettered by personal considerations or private convictions. In accord with this obligation, the academic should not defend the right, within an academic context, to argue illogically or base conclusions on the uncritical, unproven or unexamined.....

related areas

See also



American Association of University Professors (AAUP), undated, 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, available at, accessed 5 October 2012, still available 29 December 2016.

American Association of University Professors and Council for Higher Education Accreditation (2012) Accreditation and Academic Freedom: An American Association of University Professors – Council for Higher Education Accreditation Advisory Statement, October, available at, accessed 21 November 2012, still available 29 December 2016.

Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, 2011, Canada’s universities Adopt New Statement on Academic Freedom, media Release, 25 October 2011, available at, accessed 5 October 2012, page not available 29 December 2016.

Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), 2012, Issues & Campaigns: Academic Freedom, available at, accessed 5 October 2012, page not available 29 December 2016.

CARA, 2012, Academic Freedom, available at, accessed 5 Octiober 2012, page not available 29 December 2016.

Gill, J., 2008, 'Academics criticise HEA for flouting principles of intellectual freedom' Times Higher Education, 17 April 2008, pdf available here.

Robinson, G and Moulton, J., 2002, Academic Freedom, avalable at, accessed 5 October 2012. Originally in Encyclopedia of Ethics, 2nd Edition, 2001, edited by L. & C. Becker, Garland Publishing, still available 29 December 2016.

Students for Academic Freedom, undated, Academic Bill of Rights, available at accessed 5 October 2012, site temporarily unavailable 29 December 2016.

University and College Union, 2009, Professional Publications: Academic freedom, available at, accessed 5 October 2012, still available 29 December 2016.

Univsersity of Lincoln, 2006, Academic Freedom: a position paper for the University, adopted by the Ethics Committee, September 2006, document available online via Google search, accessed 5 October 2012.

Vukasovic, M., 2011, 'Institutional autonomy and academic freedom in light of the new conditions under which higher education operates' in the publication of the XXIII Anniversary of the Magna Charta Universitatum Bologna, Italy, 15–16 September 2011.

Zimmer, R., 2009, 'Address Delivered at Columbia University' 21 October 2009 at the conference “What Is Academic Freedom for?”, available at, accessed 5 October 2012, still available 29 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2004–2017

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