CGHE Seminar 66

Institutional autonomy, academic freedom and the public character of the university

  • Simon Marginson, University of Oxford
  • Ronald Barnett, UCL Institute of Education

In a recent speech at a USA university, a Chinese student expressed gratitude at the freedom permitted to students to express themselves in the USA, the speech receiving public condemnation both from authorities in China and from Chinese students at that USA university.

The incident suggests that: a) the speech itself was delivered in an institution that enjoyed a high degree of autonomy; b) academics in that institution further enjoyed a high degree of freedom; c) there was little in the way of a tight relationship between that university and the state; and d) the speech itself helped in promoting the public sphere.

This story is a nice exemplification of the intertwinedness of these four components – institutional autonomy, academic freedom, the relationships between states and universities and the public sphere. In my presentation, I want to explore these interconnections, and I shall do so through a social-philosophical perspective. Many speak of the university ‘in ruins’ but I shall suggest that there is much to play for.

Simon Marginson

University autonomy has always been relative autonomy or ‘regulated autonomy’ as some call it. Nowhere in the world is the state entirely absent, even in the United States where the university is seen as a branch of civil society.

But the genius of the medieval incorporation of the university was that its relative autonomy provided space for a semi-independent zone of intellectual freedom. It is this zone of intellectual freedom, with its ongoing potential (albeit rarely exercised) for reflexive self-formation and critical social formation, that makes the university a distinctive social institution.

No scholars anywhere, regardless of the political culture, like being directed by the state (or the market). One test of a ‘public’ university is the extent to which it provides a wide space for criticism, challenge, controversy and new public forms. The issue is not whether there should be intellectual freedom but how the zone of intellectual freedom is joined to the larger public sphere so as to contribute to the public process of reflexive and collective social transformation.

Event audio

Listen to an audio recording of Ronald Barnett’s presentation. Unfortunately because of a technical glitch the recording of Simon Marginson’s presentation is unavailable.

Simon Marginson

Simon Marginson

Simon Marginson is Professor of Higher Education at the University of Oxford, Director of the ESRC/OFSRE Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE), Joint Editor-in-Chief of Higher Education, and Lead Researcher with Higher School of Economics in Moscow. Simon’s research is focused primarily on global and international higher education, the contributions of higher education and higher education as a public and common good, and higher education and social inequality. At Oxford he leads the MSc (Education) subject on ‘Global higher education’. His recent books include Higher Education in Federal Countries, edited with Martin Carnoy, Isak Froumin and Oleg Leshukov (Sage, 2018) and High Participation Systems of Higher Education, edited with Brendan Cantwell and Anna Smolentseva (Oxford University Press, 2018).

Ronald Barnett

Ronald Barnett

Ronald Barnett is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education at the UCL Institute of Education. He recently completed a trilogy on what it is to understand the university (with Being a University; Imagining the University; and Understanding the University). Just published by Routledge (October) is his idea of the university: The Ecological University: A Feasible Utopia. His books have been translated into several languages and several have won prizes. He has had an (earned) higher doctorate of the University of London conferred on him and is a visiting professor at several universities. He is the inaugural recipient of the EAIR Award for ‘Outstanding Contribution to Higher Education Research, Policy and Practice’ and has been an invited keynote speaker in 40 countries.

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