The Academic Freedom and Internationalisation Working Group (AFIWG) brings together academics from UK higher education institutions, who are supported by relevant civil society representatives and the All-Party Parliamentary Human Rights Group (PHRG), to work on the protection of academic freedom and engage in advocacy for members of the academic community at risk across the world. The group began meeting in September 2019, with the aim of highlighting the importance of upholding academic freedom in the context of internationalisation of UK higher education and promoting a collective and organised response by academic communities and HE institutions in the UK.

In September 2021, the AFIWG has received financial support by the Economic and Social Research Council via the University of Exeter to continue our work with the All-Party Parliamentary Human Rights Group and English PEN, supported by the Council for At-Risk Academics (Cara), UCU and Scholars at Risk. Among other things this means we will work towards: 1) Gathering final comments on our Draft Model Code of Conduct ; 2) Debating the final Model Code with UUK, its members, our colleagues and students; 3) Launching the Model Code of Conduct in Parliament and advocating for its adoption by UK universities. By committing to measures of transparency and accountability, and putting these into practice in their own charters and procedures, universities may demonstrate that they are protecting academic freedom from financial, political, and other pressures

Academics, students and research interests make HE institutions based in the UK international in character, with most members of the academic community benefiting from international links. Members of the AFIWG have themselves made use of opportunities to study and conduct research abroad. Importantly, for some of us abroad means outside of the UK, while for others it means within the UK.

As supporters of international academic cooperation and academic freedom, the AFIWG has been concerned about growing challenges that members of the academic community face globally in the process of learning, teaching and conducting research, including physical attacks, prosecution, dismissals, censorship and travel restrictions.

Challenges to academic freedom may result from repressive government practices. They may also arise or be aggravated by marketisation and an opportunistic approach to building global ties within the higher education sector. Some of these factors may in turn exacerbate the casualisation of academic work and prompt the creation of funding structures that make universities vulnerable to interference by donors. These challenges are on-going, and face all countries, including the UK. As a 2017  University and College Union (UCU)  study highlights,  “legislative protection for the substantive (teaching and learning) and supportive (tenure and governance) elements of academic freedom” has not been strong in the UK. Free to Think annual reports by the Scholars at Risk Network moreover show that the number of attacks on higher education communities worldwide has been growing over the years.  The AFIWG’s concern is that certain aspects of the internationalisation of higher education may aggravate both the direct and more subtle challenges to academic freedom in the UK.

With a specific focus on internationalisation of the UK Higher Education sector, the AFIWG aims to work towards raising awareness and increasing the protection of academic freedom by:

  • highlighting the importance of academic freedom internationally;

  • promoting measures that protect academic freedom and the academic community in the UK and their partners overseas;

  • identifying risks and gaps in academic freedom protection;

  • promoting a collective response by UK higher education institutions, particularly by drafting a model Code of Conduct and encouraging its adoption by UK higher education institutions;

  • facilitating constructive engagement with relevant stakeholders, and developing and sharing best practices.