Nature | Column: World View



Time to cry out for academic freedom

Article tools

It was Clark Kerr, a former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, who most memorably defined the role of a university administrator: to arrange parking for the staff, sex for the students and sports for the alumni.

Kerr’s throwaway line contained a kernel of truth: university administration is a necessary evil. Students and academics are the heart and soul of a university, and do its real work. The administrators, as his definition implies, merely facilitate. Well, these days, you would hardly know it. On campuses across the world, managerialism is on the march. The ancient power struggle between academics and administrators has lurched decisively in favour of the latter.

Nowhere is this more true than in the United Kingdom, where reforms instigated by former prime minister Margaret Thatcher 30 years ago have enabled vice-chancellors to extend their grip over matters that were once controlled by academics, such as what subjects to teach, which kinds of grant to chase and criteria for hiring staff. By shifting decision-making to committees dominated by their close allies, many vice-chancellors now operate as if they were chief executives.

This managerial approach, and the growing reach and expanse of administrative staff that has accompanied it, is gathering pace worldwide. That is largely because British and US universities dominate international university league tables, and many countries’ higher-education policies seek to emulate their model. Germany’s Excellence Initiative, for example, has selected a small number of promising institutions and given them the money to build up stronger central administrations.

I am not convinced that any of this is in the interests of students, teachers or the wider communities that universities are supposed to serve. I am a UK resident, but share continental suspicions of league tables, most of which originated in the English-speaking world and reflect the strengths of institutions there. At Europe-wide meetings, I often empathize with the audience’s evident bemusement at the self-regard with which British and US speakers comport themselves. I fear that, left unchecked, the high-handed behaviour of some vice-chancellors will do to UK universities what the bearers of the same corporate outlook have done to our once-respected high-street banks. Just as local bank managers are a thing of the past, stubbornly independent academics can be flushed out by aggressive administrators, with their management speak and freshly minted data on research performance.

Most of the resistance to these changes has come from the arts and humanities. Critics such as literary scholar Stefan Collini have lambasted what they regard as the destruction of the UK university system in the London Review of Books and elsewhere. Scientists have been largely favoured by the new regime, and, perhaps as a result, their leaders have been mute on the issue.

“Governments have neglected democracy and academic freedom in their push to make universities more businesslike.”

That cannot last. Research funding in the United Kingdom has been frozen for five years and, after next week’s government spending review, will probably start to decline. About to enter the fray is the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework. This is modelled on the Research Excellence Framework for evaluating university research, which has dominated British higher education since 1986 and has been widely adopted overseas. The pressures placed on academics by often-bogus metrics continue to mount.

Here in Scotland, and rather against the tide, an effort is under way to give staff and students more influence over how universities are run. A higher-education governance bill proposed by the devolved government would mandate elections of those wishing to chair university governing bodies, and would require the inclusion of staff and student unions on major committees. The bill takes its cue from a 2012 report led by Ferdinand von Prondzynski, principal and vice-chancellor of Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, and includes measures to guarantee academic freedom under the law.

The modest reforms in the bill are being fought tooth and nail by other university principals. Their association, Universities Scotland, has worked hard to create the impression that academics are happy with the current governance arrangements. It has argued that parts of the bill threaten the institutions’ autonomy and would endanger their charitable status. It has even won the backing of Edward Snowden, the celebrated US whistleblower and student-elected rector of the University of Glasgow, who has tweeted opposition to the bill from his bunker in Moscow. But the proposal merely takes the process that got Snowden his position at Glasgow and extends it to other, newer institutions.

The Scottish National Party government and the opposition Labour Party are both likely to support passage of the bill, modified somewhat to protect institutions’ autonomy. So universities in this corner of the world, at least, are set to become a touch more democratic. I’d like to see that movement spread to other places, where governments have been neglecting the concepts of democracy and academic freedom in their relentless push to make universities more businesslike. The cult of the chief executive has already permeated almost every corner of our society. But universities are not corporations. They are, by definition, self-organized bodies of academics. Student and staff representation on key university committees will remind administrators of this fact, call them to account — and, in the long run, strengthen university governance.

Journal name:
Date published:

Author information


  1. Colin Macilwain writes about science policy from Edinburgh, UK.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to:

Author details

For the best commenting experience, please login or register as a user and agree to our Community Guidelines. You will be re-directed back to this page where you will see comments updating in real-time and have the ability to recommend comments to other users.


Commenting is currently unavailable.

sign up to Nature briefing

What matters in science — and why — free in your inbox every weekday.

Sign up



Nature Podcast

Our award-winning show features highlights from the week's edition of Nature, interviews with the people behind the science, and in-depth commentary and analysis from journalists around the world.