Apr 10, 2020

After Backlash, UCD Abandons Plans to Weaken Policy on Academic Freedom

The draft plan to change the policy said UCD must consider ‘the risk of tension’ between academic freedom and its international links.

Sárán FogartyAssistant News Editor
Róisín Power for The University Times

University College Dublin (UCD) has dropped proposed changes to its academic freedom policy – mooted due to its growing links with China and other countries – following backlash from academics across the country, the Irish Times and Times have reported.

A working group in UCD had proposed that as academic freedom was not the same around the world, this fact had to be taken into account when dealing with other countries.

The draft policy, the Irish Times reported, said UCD must consider “the risk of tension” between its obligations to uphold academic freedom and “the strategic imperative to internationalise higher education”.


Academic freedom is the right for university staff and students to discuss issues without fear of reprisal or censorship from university or government authorities.

The group had proposed an addendum to the existing definition of academic freedom in place at the university. It read: “There is little firm ground (including in case law) on which to rest an agreed definition of what academic freedom means.”

The working group explained that a university with “a large international footprint”, needed to “consider and appraise the risk of tension arising between the obligations regarding academic freedom and the strategic imperative to internationalise higher education”.

Speaking to the Times, Prof Wolfgang Marx, a professor of musicology in UCD, said that staff received an email on March 20th telling them the group was looking at the definition of academic freedom to potentially revise it “in light of UCD’s international activities, particularly in jurisdictions that may not have the same understanding of the concept”.

He added: “It was clearly about relativising it [the concept of academic freedom].”

Marx started a petition against the proposal, which was widely supported by academics across Ireland with nearly 500 signatures. UCD has subsequently backtracked on the proposal.

The terms of reference for the working group, seen by the Times, say that the group would establish an “appropriate balance” between promoting the principles of academic freedom as established under the 1997 Universities Act and the “university’s ambition to increase the amount of non-exchequer income that it generates”.

The proposal also drew criticism from well-known academics such as modern Irish history professor Diarmuid Ferriter and Emeritus professor of equality studies Kathleen Lynch.

In a recent email to faculty, working group chair Prof Grace Mulcahy said feedback had raised concerns the amendment would “dilute” UCD’s existing policy.

Mulcahy said that “was not the intention” and the working group would no longer be proposing the amendment to UCD’s Academic Council.

UCD has relied heavily on income from international students – who pay annual fees in excess of €20,000 – in recent years. International students now make up nearly a third of the college’s student population.

UCD jointly runs an international college in Beijing, a medical college in Malaysia and has also procured partnerships with universities in Singapore, Sri Lanka and Hong Kong.

The Confucius Institute on UCD’s Belfield campus, which promotes Chinese culture and language, was set up following an agreement between the Chinese Ministry of Education and UCD.

Sign Up to Our Weekly Newsletters

Get The University Times into your inbox twice a week.