Crippling fear has chilling effect on critic and conscience.

Sandra Grey, TEU, August 2021

TEU National Secretary Sandra Grey warns of a frost descending over academic freedom, evidenced by a recent academic freedom survey commissioned in the leadup to our Academic Freedom Conference on 31 August and 1 September.

Fear is crippling and irrational. It creeps up on us and changes our behaviours.

This is definitely the case for staff in the tertiary education sector where fear around job security is impinging on the responsibility to exercise academic freedom.

A survey of a little over 300 staff in the sector shows that academic freedom is not being preserved, let alone enhanced, in our institutions of higher education.

Comments from the respondents indicate that the way the sector is organised, the commercialisation of education, and the mandate taken by senior leaders in the sector to ‘protect their brand’ has sent a frost out across Aotearoa. A frost which means people refrain from acting as the critic and conscience of society and are hesitant to critically engage in discussions surrounding the ways in which the sector and institutions are run. This is despite the running of the sector and institutions inevitably impacting on teaching, learning, and research (all things for which the community has the responsibility of exercising academic freedom).

Voices of the Sector Sandra Grey

Asked if they can exercise academic freedom, comments like this were all too common:

“It seems to be ok as long as the “received wisdom” being questioned or criticised is not coming from University Senior Management”

“That depends – as an academic in an affably senior position I do feel that I have academic freedom in expressing expert opinions about my specialist area of research. However, I would feel much more wary of criticising the university and its managerial decisions – although there is an awful lot to criticise!”

Why the reluctance to critique institutional managers? Because people have either found themselves on the ‘wrong side’ of a debate or heard about colleagues who suffer for speaking up.

“A member of staff has been told that he/she will never hold an appointment (such as course director, deputy head) because of speaking out.”

“I spoke out against the review here and was visited by the change manager for the university to “assure” me that the vice-chancellor was “aware of my concerns.” I never spoke out again.

The reality may be that people aren’t censured every time they critique our sector or the managers in it; however just a few attacks have a chilling effect and create fear.

As I write, I can hear the cries this little article will inspire from management in universities (and perhaps other parts of the sector). I’ve heard them before when TEU has raised the concern that there is fear of speaking out, of critiquing, and this is being driven by management actions.

There will be managers who cry “you’re just hearing from those with a bone to pick, everyone else is happy”; “your survey sample is too small to say anything”; and “the union is just being aggressive and confrontational.”

I urge those who feel tempted to dismiss the fears expressed by some staff to just hold off and talk to us about what is going on; to join us at the Academic Freedom Conference in Wellington on 31 August and 1 September being cohosted by Massey University and NZUSA. It is time we unpack the crisis of academic freedom which jumps out at us not only in the survey but in our daily work.