Phil Sooben


Phil Sooben, CEO of the Political Studies Association, discusses a few of the most recent cases of limits being placed on academic freedom or inappropriate political interference and the duty of individuals and organisations to speak out. 


The current case of Matthew Hedges has highlighted once again how easy it is to take for granted the ability to carry out academic research without the fear of political interference or even imprisonment. Fortunately, since we posted a PSA statement last Thursday condemning Matthew’s treatment by the United Arab Emirates and urging the UK Government to do all in its power to support him and secure his release, the case has taken a more positive turn with the news this morning that he will now be released. 

Unfortunately, this is not the only case this year where we have spoken out on behalf of political scientists in particular but also the academic community as a whole. As a professional association representing those who teach and research politics, we believe that we have an obligation to support both those from the UK working in other countries and our international colleagues across the world. We should also be willing to condemn those who would limit or prevent the teaching and study of (often contentious) political issues or their communication to the wider public. 

Often this is most effectively achieved through collective action and we will work with our fellow associations to alert others to new cases and to ensure that, where possible, we speak with one voice. This was an approach that we proposed and was agreed by association leaders at this year’s APSA annual meeting. Through the Academy of Social Sciences, we will also work alongside other social science learned societies in the UK and I will be discussing this issue with my fellow chief officers shortly. We are also an organisational member of the Arts and Humanities Alliance (AHA) which has been active in relation to the events in Australia referred to below.


  • Last week we gave our support to those colleagues in Catalonia who acted as impartial expert observers of the independence referendum. They are now threatened with imprisonment. The PSA added its name to an open letter circulating to universities across the world. 

As this letter states very clearly, this is not about taking sides in the independence debate ‘While we do not seek to take a position on Catalonia’s independence in this letter, we firmly condemn the illegality of imprisoning someone because of her or his political beliefs.’


  • We also join with others in condemning the recent decision by the Australian Government to overturn a number of funding recommendations by the Australian Research Council. Many of you will have seen the coverage of this case by the Times Higher and will have been appalled at the underhand manner in which it was done - that an individual minister decided to turn down these grants which had all been thoroughly peer-reviewed, and that the only grants which were blocked were for the humanities. Please see the letter from the AHA in last week’s Times Higher. This case also reminds us that in liberal democracies, as well as less open societies, we must remain vigilant to the risk of inappropriate political interference.  


  • Earlier this year the Hungarian Government put forward its proposal to ban a programme on gender studies and withdraw accreditation and funding and we spoke out alongside many others including writing to the Hungarian Minister of Education on the matter. 


There have been many other examples in recent years where researchers have had their funding withdrawn, their jobs taken away, their freedom undermined. In some cases, this has necessitated people leaving their own country to seek safety and employment elsewhere. Many of you will be aware of the work of CARA, the council for at-risk academics, which has supported those in such circumstances since the 1930s and launched its campaign last year to increase its funding through donations from UK academics amongst others – the ‘10 for 20’ fundraising appeal.  

It is our duty to speak out and to defend those who pursue truth and knowledge through research or who use their expertise in the public interest. In some of these cases, the likelihood of a government changing its position may appear to be slim but where there is sufficient international pressure such changes are possible, as we have just seen in the case of Matthew Hedges.     

For those interested in finding out more about these issues and potentially giving their active support please go to the Academic Freedom Monitoring Report at the Scholars at Risk Network's website.


Phil Sooben is CEO of the Political Studies Association.