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Academic freedom and the education of professionals

Lindsay Paterson, emeritus professor of education policy, School of Social and Political Science.

19 February 2024

(This blog is based on a seminar paper given at Queen Margaret University, 14 February 2024.)

Advocates of academic freedom face a problem when considering the university education of people intending to enter a profession. To be employed in a profession requires validation by the relevant professional association. To be educated for that career therefore is inevitably constrained by these regulations. So education directed towards that end cannot be wholly free. That seems to make such courses rather different from other university courses. But are they?

There is no doubt about the constraints contained in professional regulation. A university may engage in professional education only if it is licensed to do so by the professional body. That may be a highly autonomous organisation, such as the Law Society, the General Medical Council, and the various professional associations of engineers, accountants and actuaries. Or it may be state-sanctioned regulation, such as for school teachers and social workers. In most cases, it is a combination of both: even the highest-status professions, such as for lawyers and medical doctors, are more constrained by the state than they were when universities were first involved in their education. Even the most state-dominated regulatory bodies have greater autonomy than a typical quango. In Scotland, for example, the regulation of school teaching is by the General Teaching Council for Scotland (the GTC), which has somewhat greater independence in setting the regulations for teaching than Education Scotland does in relation to the school curriculum, or than the Scottish Qualifications Authority does for school assessment.

Whatever the ultimate source of the institutional regulation of professionals, these rules are unavoidable constraints on the academic freedom of students who are training to be professionals, and on the teachers who teach them. Consider, for example, what the GTC says about the “professional values” that new teachers have to hold if they are to be allowed to teach in Scottish schools (as stipulated in the Standard for Provisional Registration, most recently revised in 2021):

  • They must “embrac[e] global educational and social values of sustainability, equality, equity, and justice and recognising children’s rights”.
  • They must be “committ[ed] to social justice through fair, transparent, inclusive, and sustainable policies and practices in relation to protected characteristics (age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion and belief, sex, sexual orientation) and intersectionality”.
  • They must “demonstrat[e] a commitment to engaging learners in real world issues to enhance learning experiences and outcomes”.

These are strong constraints on professional practice, and are thus also unavoidable constraints on the academic freedom of what trainee teachers must learn.

Nor can it, I think, be reasonably denied that some of these constraints, even if desirable, are not essential to being an effective teacher according to some reasonable definitions of what a teacher’s task is. They are thus constraints which are socially imposed, not coming in any freely articulated way from the academic disciplines that contribute to teacher education.

For example, in connection with the first principle, there exists a reasonable debate between the words “equality” and “equity”. Indeed, the very fact that both words appear presupposes that they do not mean the same. A teacher might, for example, believe in equality of opportunity but not equality of outcome, and thus believe in one meaning of equality while not accepting a currently common meaning of equity. But, in their university courses of initial teacher education, if that teacher held to these views, they would fail this criterion. To that extent, their academic freedom would be constrained, and there would be nothing they could do about it if they wanted to become a teacher.

On some of these constraints, the implications for academic freedom are unclear but also potentially severely restrictive in a highly controversial way. On the second example from the GTC, the word “intersectionality” is open to so many meanings that it is not clear what sort of constraint this is. One uncontroversial meaning would be that, say, the social effects of being both female and also black are more than the sum of the effects of being female and the effects of being black. That idea has long been familiar in statistical analysis, usually under the name of “interactive effect”. It would then be open  to an empirical scientific test of whether such an interactive effect is important enough to have an impact on students’ experience.

But if a strongly political interpretation of “intersectionality” is taken, then the scope for questioning the additivity of effects is denied. Indeed, in the currently quite common political use of “intersectionality”, it is denied that anyone other than those at the intersecting point could ever understand the experience of being there, in which case the task facing the teacher is axiomatically impossible unless they themselves are at that point of intersection. That political interpretation of intersectionality is so intrusive on academic freedom as to destroy part of it altogether; and that is what the GTC seems to require of teacher education.

Some of the constraints seem to exclude views of teaching that are probably quite widely held. The third example from the GTC illustrates that. Paying attention to “real world issues” has always been a controversial proposition in debates about liberal education. Even a teacher who accepted the other two controversial principles – on equity and on intersectionality – might still reasonably say that the most liberating form of education is that which frees the student from the constraints of “real world issues”.

These examples from the standards required to be registered as a teacher in Scotland are thus illustrations of strong control of professional education by social institutions. They illustrate the extent to which professional education is not academically free.

On the face of it, this seems quite different from the place of academic freedom in other university disciplines.

But matters are not, I think, as straightforward as that. Professional education is not unique. Far from being peculiar in its relationship to academic freedom, it actually shows with particular clarity why no liberal society could reasonably be expected to tolerate unfettered academic freedom in any kind of university teaching.

Before we get to that, however, there is first the important extent to which academic freedom does have a part to play in professional education, despite the constraints. Free debate is part of the very definition of professionalism, and thus of the education of professionals. For example, the findings of science underpin many of the largest professions. Academic freedom is at the very heart of scientific progress – the formulating of hypothesis, the open-minded testing of them, the sharing of methods and of provisional results widely so that they can be further tested in diverse settings, and the wide publication of conclusions. Professionals in fields which depend on science thus depend on the results of free scientific enqury. Many of these professionals become partners in scientific investigation, and so are themselves scientists with a commitment to open enquiry. Indeed, it would be impossible to do, say, modern medical research without the active involvement of appropriate medical practioners. Professional education also emphasises the central role of discretion. The act of trying to implement a scientific idea is itself creative, and thus is open to dispute. So the dispute should be free.

The strong relationship between professions and free inquiry does itself, then, already cast doubt on any idea that the university education of professionals is thoroughly distinct from other kinds of university teaching. Then the same is true of the regulatory constraints. Though the teaching of non-professional subjects is not constrained by formal professional associations, it is unavoidably constrained by analogous kinds of social intrusion, no less insistent for being informal.

Academic freedom has always to be constrained by what is reasonable in the discipline. That is most obviously the case in the natural sciences. Despite what some non-scientific philosophers claim – following Paul Feyerabend – it is simply not true that “anything goes” in science. There are methods, and epistemological rules, and norms of evidence-based debate, and usually modes of mathematical reasoning. All of these are often not explicit and yet inescapably part of the very meaning of science.

The humanities and social sciences may seem freer, but as social institutions they are not, even if individuals might be somewhat less constrained than the individual scientist. For example, it would not be reasonable for a sociology department to decline to teach statistical methods on the grounds that none of its members liked statistics. Even if such a proposal was not rejected by the external members of any validation board, it would be likely to be so controversial that, for a public university, the funding body would decline to fund student places on it. A wholly private university might get away with it, but, over time, the absence of statistical method from its curriculum would be likely to disadvantage its graduates in the labour market, and so would be likely to lead to a severe loss of students.

The critic of these characterisations of science or humanities or social science might point to the cases where pioneering academics have dissented from the principles of a discipline. That is true, but the very rarity of it tends to confirm that academic work must take place within the context of a discipline. Sometimes such dissent has led to the creation of new disciplines, and thus a new set of unavoidable institutional constraints. More often, the challenge to premises takes place within a discipline and the resulting debate leads to gradual reform of the discipline. So academic freedom here is a freedom constrained by the need to persuade other people in the discipline or in the wider scholarly community. It is therefore actually a constraint that ultimately comes from the public character of language itself: the critic of the current norms in a discipline has to start by operating within them.

This constraint is perhaps the clearest example of the ways in which academic freedom is not the same as freedom of speech. Freedom of speech would allow anyone to say what they like about the true meaning of sociology, and would allow them to claim to teach it. Academic freedom cannot be that broad. And this point is not about our preferences, but rather about what we mean by a discipline: a discipline simply is a set of constraints. The rules of a discipline are usually not as systematically formulated as those governing a profession, although some aspects of them come close to that – for example, the protocols around scientific experiments, or the mathematics of statistical inference. But these rules are not less insistent for that.

Beyond these disciplinary constraints, there are wider institutional and even legal sources of restriction on academic freedom, and which all academic disciplines share with professional education.

For example, official statements of academic freedom generally subject it to the judgement of the universities as institutions. The widely admired Chicago Principles (issued by that university a decade ago) state that academic freedom is absolute “except insofar as limitations on that freedom are necessary to the functioning of the University”. The relevant Scottish legislation of 2016 stipulates that the duty of universities to uphold academic freedom is exercised “so far as the [university] considers reasonable”.

We might of course say that this is respecting that aspect of academic freedom that upholds institutional autonomy, but allowing no higher court of appeal than the university, makes the protection of individual academic freedom rather shaky. Unlike the more recent legislation in England, there is in Scotland no legal or regulatory framework that might force a university to uphold a definition of academic freedom that is contrary to the university management’s own definition.

One such limitation is, again, the functioning of the disciplines. Another example has been suggested in a recent discussion paper by Cass Sunstein (of Harvard University): a university is entitled to set rules about assessment, and a student could not claim that academic freedom entitled them to flout these rules, for instance by answering exam questions capriciously rather than according to generally accepted conventions of the discipline in question.

Institutional constraints of this kind are thus analogous to the professional regulations that govern teachers, doctors, accounts, and many others.

Moreover, all academic freedom is conceived of as being “within the law”. The Chicago principles state that “the University may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests … .” The Scottish legislation has a similar stipulation.

Although it seems to be widely accepted in these debates that “within the law” is a reasonable constraint on both academic freedom and freedom of speech, this principle does not allow for laws to be wrong, or for laws to be challenged in ways that are unlawful. In these circumstances, freedom within the law may be of little value.

In short, the implications of professional education are not what they might seem to be. It is not the case that professional education is so special that the unavoidable constraints on academic freedom within it mark it out from university education of other kinds. Professional education points up particularly sharply why social instititions unavoidably intrude on what all academics do.

Because society has an interest in everything that universities do, there are always constraints. Some of these constraints are legal and regulatory even when no organised profession is involved. Some are unavoidable consequences of organising learning into disciplines, which are themselves social institutions that impose methods and epistemologies on their members. Pushing against these constraints can be noble and essential, because, without academic freedom, knowledge would not advance, and the professions could not be renewed. But the task of trying to promote academic freedom is, for all these reasons, doomed to perpetual frustration.

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