There are numerous threats to academic freedom in higher education today: from the government’s Prevent Strategy to the increasing marketization of education. However, for Joanna Williams, author of Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity: Confronting the Fear of Knowledge (2016) the biggest threat to academic freedom is an increasingly stifling culture of conformity that is restricting individual academics, the freedom of academic thought and the progress of knowledge – the very foundations upon which universities are built.
Once, scholars demanded academic freedom to critique existing knowledge and to pursue new truths. Today, while fondness for the rhetoric of academic freedom remains, it is increasingly criticised by students and academics alike as an outdated and elitist concept used the further the view of the already powerful, and called into question by a number of political and intellectual trends such as feminism, critical theory and identity politics. Joanna argues that a challenge to this culture of conformity, and a defence of academic free speech, are needed for critique and the pursuit of knowledge to be possible and meaningful. But shouldn’t there be limits to academic free speech, as there are in wider society? Or should students and staff have no protection from controversial or potentially sensitive material? Is academic freedom really an outdated concept or an elitist privilege?