Academic freedom must be defended

“Academic freedom and critical thinking aren’t luxuries, but crucial in this age of climate emergency and threatened autocracy.” Following the news that Cambridge University has accepted a £6 million donation from oil company Shell, Green Peer Natalie Bennett questions whether the commercialisation of higher education has led to the demise of critical thinking.

King's College, Cambridge University
King's College, Cambridge University

King's College, Cambridge University

Natalie Bennett

In 2010, Professor Terry Eagleton said: “What we have witnessed in our own time is the death of universities as a centre of critique. Since Margaret Thatcher, the role of the university has been to service the status quo, not challenge it.”

Looking at the recent news emerging about our universities, it’s not only clear that he was correct, but that the tendency has been accelerating – the quote could easily today be simply shortened to “the death of universities”.

The original Latin from which the term ‘university’ comes meant ‘a community of scholars’. It was definitely not meant to be a place up for sale to the highest bidder – a commercial operation in the business of selling degrees and hunting for sponsorship.

Yet that’s what many of our universities, in their desperate competition for students and research pounds, have been forced into being – and all too often happily embraced.

However, what they have for ‘sale’ – what their legitimacy is based on – is independence, critical thinking, wisdom, the ability to prepare students for a fast-changing, unstable world. Take that away, and you have a finishing school or a technical training college.

And it is being taken away. In prestigious institutions, richly funded places, research and approaches built on denying facts, denying democracy and suppressing critical thinking are gaining ground.

Cambridge’s fossil fuel links

If we had stopped all new fossil fuel investment at the end of last year, we could, just about, have ensured the world will not see 1.5ºC of warming, putting it at risk of runaway disaster. We have a carbon bubble – at least three-quarters of the known fossil fuel reserves have to be left in the ground to avoid catastrophic climate change.

And yet Cambridge University has just accepted £6 million from oil company Shell to fund a team studying oil extraction. And, having failed to disclose that, it has just invited a Shell executive to explain why it shouldn’t stop funding fossil fuel companies with its investments – something that the student- and academic-led campaign for divestment has long been pushing for. Unsurprisingly, it has tried very hard not to disclose this. 

Around the UK, 76 universities have agreed to take their money out of funding fossil fuels. Cambridge – you might not be surprised to learn – is not among them. 

Yet it would claim to be one of our leading universities. Critical thinking? You’d have to question if this is any longer at the foundation of this university.

Political meddling from the Chinese state

But possibly even more disturbing is broad-ranging news – covering many of our universities, including many ‘leading’ ones – found in a report from the Foreign Affairs Select Committee that concluded there is ‘alarming’ political meddling from the Chinese state in our universities.

We need to be able to look critically at the actions of Beijing in Hong Kong, in the South China Seas and in its relationships with African and other states in order to educate the many young Chinese people who come to our universities in the critical thinking their nation needs. But yet our leading institutions, and the government, are failing to see or act on the dangers.

That’s not to say there are not brilliant things happening in some universities with some courses. In recent weeks I’ve been with the students and senior scholars from the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures in Sheffield, where they are really facing up to the critical, cross-disciplinary issues of our time, the climate, natural, social and economic crises threatening our future, and the need for scholars to be activists as well as thinkers, sociologists as well as scientists.

Recently at the University of Warwick, talking to students at a climate event, I met many from cross-disciplinary courses incorporating Global Sustainable Development as a core part of the course, combined with everything from law to business to physics.

This is new, independent thinking which breaks down the silos of traditional, constricting academic disciplines, equipping students to operate in a complex, fast-changing world. Education that assumes scholars will also be activists, if necessary taking to the streets to deliver their messages.

These are the scholars of which we need – as I heard at the Bonn climate talks two years ago – one hundred times as many, or more. Every student should have this at the heart of their education. Now a scant few at a handful of our universities do.

In the overall scheme of runaway climate change, of the threats to the international rules-based order that was working towards the championing of human rights and democracy, the collapse of the British university system is small beer.

But for the British economy, for which it is a major export, for the communities increasingly economically dependent on their universities, for the possibilities of discoveries that could help us through the next critical decade and beyond, it would be a disaster.

Academic freedom from commercial and political pressures might seem like an abstract concept, almost a luxury. But it is actually a critical resource for all of our futures.

But that doesn’t mean freedom from democratic scrutiny. ‘Who and what are our universities working for?’ is a question that we must ask.