Higher Education Research Group

Higher Education Research Group

Covering all aspects of Higher Education, this blog features contributions from members of the Higher Education Research Group

An ontology of academic freedom debates? Preliminary observations

Omar Kaissi*

Across Northern and Southern academia, the problem of the future of academic freedom is gaining unprecedented traction. Tensions arise as higher education scholarly communities – in the words of Becher and Trowler (2001), the Academic Tribes and Territories of the ‘ivory tower’ – tear at each other’s throats over all sorts of imaginably contentious questions of science, politics and economics and the principles and values that ought to govern organised human (co-)existence.

From frustrations with the disappearing of indigeneity under the weight of exploitative capitalism (think Australia and Canada), to concerns with the persecutorial minoritisation of ethnic and religious communities (think Myanmar and China), to challenges to theocratic authoritarianism and autocratic welfarism (think Iran and the Arab Gulf) and a myriad of conflicting positionings over governance (localism versus regionalism), identity politics (sex versus gender) and the properties of prejudice (agential versus structural) (think UK, France, Brazil and Hungary), there is no shortage of trouble demanding opinion, fuelling dissensus and calling into question the meaning and practice of academic freedom. Everyone in academia has material and symbolic assets which can be capitalised to make claims to the right of freedom of speech and the (self-)interested advancement of political, policy and/or research agendas (Bourdieu, 1988).

Indeed, it is simplistic to assume that the current toxic environment of academic freedom is merely the byproduct of monumental shifts in (geo-)political arrangements (e.g. Trumpism and Trumponomics in the US; Brexit in the UK; ‘strongman politics’ across Eastern Europe and some Asian and African regions). The backlash against liberal multiculturalism, so the argument here goes, enabled the formation of new voice and action landscapes that acted as rallying points for academics deeply sceptical about the implications for free speech of the institutionalisation of liberal-democratic social and cultural value-systems in higher education – an institutionalisation initiated by, as Glucksmann (1994) argues, the exodus of feminism from the street to the university in the 1970s. There is truth in this argument, surely, and there is no escaping the fact, as should be evident to anyone working in Anglophone higher education today, that the said backlash has had the effect of deepening the fault lines and codifying differences between already clashing factions, such as between the proponents of social class politics and those of identity politics in the sociology of education (see Lauder et al., 2009).

My wager, however, is that the revival of and rifts in academic freedom debates are symptoms of endogenous (inside-academia), and not merely exogenous (outside-academia), causes of disillusionment with the status-quo. For better or worse, the doxic (i.e. manufactured, not natural) world of paradigms, modes of knowledge production and principles of determining ‘what can and cannot be said’ (Jenkins, 2014, p. 156) in many a discipline and field of study is being destabilised. In other words, many academics are, expressively or not, experiencing disillusionment not because they are, for example, pro- or anti-Right populism (US), Eurosceptic or Europhilic (UK), Eurasianistic or driven by anti-Russia nationalist sentiments (Ukraine), Islamic or secular (Arab Gulf), but rather because they have reason to believe that what is at stake is the utility and explanatory power of academic knowledge itself. More so, it can be said that they are preoccupied, to varying degrees, with the question of the role of higher education in the pursuit of truth (see, for example, Bridges, 2017; Davids, 2021 and Gardner & Fischman, 2021), howsoever it may be conceived (e.g. truth or post-truth?), and whatever its ends may be (e.g. truth for truth’s sake or truth for social justice?)

That is not to say that the purely political (exogenous) and the purely epistemic (endogenous) are not entangled, or that those who come to academic freedom debates are politically disinterested or do not have histories, loyalties, affiliations, even grievances (be they personal, professional or institutional) which shape what and how they think about controversial topics. Rather, what acknowledging and seeking to map and examine endogenous destabilisations of assumptive worlds and disciplinary knowledges in higher education – this is a formidable endeavour begging undertaking – would essentially achieve is an ontological differentiation of substances of debate, between what constitutes an argument of (and for) politics and what constitutes an argument of (and for) knowledge. For example, the ongoing collision in my own specialism, masculinities and education, between masculinities studies (where, following Scott [2010], masculinities and femininities are still considered useful categories of analysis) and post-gender studies (where it is contended that new epistemological transcendentalisms, an ‘epistemological need’ [p. 688], as Martino and Cumming-Potvin [2018] put it, are needed to understand transgenderism), is, in my view, being wrongly couched in terms of a collision of political views. It is indeed unfortunate that what is often lost in the heat of overly politicised (sometimes downright demonising) debates is that the real division here is not one of progressivism and traditionalism, between the New Revisionists (‘sex-sympathisers’) of masculinity studies and the Avant-Garde of post-gender studies, but one of normative and post-normative knowledge. It is a division between insistence on giving a normative theory of gender, broadly conceived, a voice, and not just a seat, at the table of gender studies, on the one hand, and rejection of any possibility of naturalist conservation (i.e. conservation without reappropriation) of the normative, on the other. Is there, thus, a case to be made for realising the necessity of a dualism: an unreal, but nevertheless axiologically necessary, separation between the politics of gender and knowledge of gender? Wouldn’t the opinion-forming freedoms of all academic communities interested or invested in the study of gender be better served by refocusing debates endogenously, on matters of (and for) knowledge, such as the value of and emphasis on normative theory?

In A World beyond Politics? (2006) Pierre Manent, the French academic and political scientist, forcefully agues that the genius of democracy, the gift of Western civilisation to the world, is its prescription of levels of separation (e.g. public and private; parliament, government and the judiciary; local, national and international) that are necessary to organise, govern, order and negotiate the systems of values and relations constitutive of human existence. These levels, though imperfect, are onto-ethically imperative, because they provide means to realise and perpetuate such excellent and rare human capabilities as deliberation and accountability. In the same vein, I would like us, academics, to rethink academic freedom debates as acts of democratic deliberation demanding ontologisation, underlabouring (i.e. working through the roots and details of things), as Bhaskar (2011) would call it. The exogenous/political-endogenous/epistemic dualistic levelling proposed here is but one of many possible ontologies of separation.


Becher, T., & Trowler, P. (2001). Academic tribes and territories. McGraw-Hill Education.

Bhaskar, R. (2011). Reclaiming reality: A critical introduction to contemporary philosophy. Routledge.

Bourdieu, P. (1988). Homo Academicus. Stanford University Press.

Bridges, D. (2017). Philosophy in educational research: Epistemology, ethics, politics and quality. Springer.

Davids, N. (2021). Academic freedom and the fallacy of a post-truth era. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 53(11), 1183-1193. https://doi.org/10.1080/00131857.2021.1917363

Gardner, H. E., & Fischman, W. (2021). Does truth have a future in higher education? Studies in Higher Education, 46(10), 2099-2105. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2021.1953332

Glucksmann, M. (1994). The work of knowledge and the knowledge of women’s work. In M. Maynard & J. Purvis (Eds.), Researching Women’s Lives From a Feminist Perspective (pp. 149-166). Taylor & Francis.

Jenkins, R. (2014). Pierre Bourdieu. Routledge.

Lauder, H., Brown, P., & Halsey, A. H. (2009). Sociology of education: A critical history and prospects for the future. Oxford Review of Education, 35(5), 569-585. https://doi.org/10.1080/03054980903216309

Manent, P. (2001). A world beyond politics? A defense of the nation-state. Princeton University Press.

Martino, W., & Cumming-Potvin, W. (2018). Transgender and gender expansive education research, policy and practice: Reflecting on epistemological and ontological possibilities of bodily becoming. Gender and Education, 30(6), 687-694. https://doi.org/10.1080/09540253.2018.1487518

Wallach Scott, J. (2010). Gender: Still a useful category of analysis? Diogenes, 57(1), 7-14. https://doi.org/10.1177/0392192110369316

*Dr Omar Kaissi is Teaching Fellow (MSc Education), Moray House School of Education and Sport, The University of Edinburgh

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