UKRI, Palestine and Academic Freedom: How UK research funding moved from critical thinking to Blacklisting and McCarthyism

The Israeli war on the Palestinian people has had an impact across wide areas of civil society far from the Middle East and far from the politics of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the umbrella body for the UK’s funding councils, has walked head first into a row about its (lack of) independence from government after it failed to defend members of its EDI committee for a couple of tweets. The Conservative Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, Michelle Donelan MP, wrote a letter to the UKRI publicly naming two academics who had identified themselves with mainstream criticism of Israel and support for the Palestinian people. The tweets were innocuous and boringly normal. But they were too much for the Minister.

Donelan claimed such actions meant they were ‘unfit’ to sit on an Advisory Committee on equality and their appointments brought into question the operation of the UKRI itself. Equality committee members with ideas about equality? Purge them.

UKRI’s response was utterly shameful. In less than 48 hours, CEO Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser announced the suspension of the entire committee “with immediate effect”, ceasing its EDI work and, remarkably, launching an investigation into “UKRI’s procedures for establishing advisory groups, and appointing individuals to serve on them” (Annex, Terms of Reference, letter to Rt Hon Michelle Donelan, 30th October 2023). 

This has to be one of the fastest capitulations to this bullying government we have seen. UKRI has shown itself fundamentally incapable of defending the academic freedom of researchers.

Academic freedom, and the freedom of expression associated with it, including the right to hold controversial views within the law, is a central foundation of a functioning higher education system. Paradigms are developed, tested, abandoned and overturned by new paradigms in a process in which intellectual inquiry is at its core. To delineate the extent to which this intellectual inquiry can be bound is to undermine the basic idea of ‘intellectual inquiry’ itself. It is for this reason that limits on academic freedom ‘within the law’ are defined in relation to incitement rather than thought itself. The enshrining of academic freedom within legislation such as in Scotland with the 2016 Higher Education is set out like this: 

 “… academic freedom” in relation to relevant persons includes their freedom within the law to do the following things—

(a) hold and express opinions,

(b) question and test established ideas or received wisdom,

(c) develop and advance new ideas or innovative proposals,

(d) present controversial or unpopular points of view.”.

Source: Scottish Government, (2016), Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Act 2016, Part 2, section 26 (4) available at Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Act 2016 (

Indeed, the ink was barely dry on the Conservative Government’s Free Speech Act 2023 when the Conservative Party was going on the attack over freedom of speech in Higher Education. 

The UK Government’s response to the widespread protest in support for the Palestinian struggle for freedom against an apartheid colonial settler state has been to seek to redefine ‘within the law’ to thought crime.  In response to demands for a unified secular state whereby all religions and none have equal citizenship, encapsulated in the slogan “From the river to the sea: Palestine shall be free”, Home Office Minister Suella Braverman MP has simply proposed changing the law to ban pro-Palestinian phrases.

To suggest the response of UKRI’s CEO was servile would be to state the obvious. More importantly, this response underlies the extent to which the drive towards ‘impact’ and ‘engagement’ with the private sector has reduced research funding in UK Higher Education to little more than a direct instrument of short-term government policy. 

Yet at a time when the UK government is deeply unpopular, and has had to accept the inevitable and to grovel to gain re-entry into the Horizon 2020 international research network, the UK wing of international research bodies might have pushed back and reasserted the importance of protecting academic freedom in research. They might have cited the Government’s own legislation insisting on free speech on campus back at them. 

They might – if they had a spine.

In truth this subservient response highlights still more worrying features of the research funding process in the UK. UKRI say they “acknowledge that its due diligence in appointments has failed”: in short, its blacklisting processes need to be strengthened. 

The blacklisting of political and trade union activists and the extent of surveillance of campaigning groups has a long history. The interconnectedness between and within the secret state, the police, proprietors of global news organisations and government Ministers has been revealed in repeated reports. The 1999 MacPherson Report revealing police collusion protecting the murderers of Stephen Lawrence, the 2011 Leveson Report into collusion between the police and press in permitting illegal phone hacking, and Sir John Mitting’s ongoing ‘Spycops’ Public Inquiry into the activities of undercover policing infiltrating campaigning groups and collaborating with blacklisting organisations all demonstrate the extent to which latter-day McCarthyism is alive and well in the UK. 

Faced with a simple challenge to academic freedom and free speech, UKRI has waved the white flag. They now admit they need to go further in ensuring free speech is more effectively policed within Higher Education.

Resisting McCarthyism

Whether we like it or not, UK Universities are now at the centre of debates over both academic freedom and Palestine. Those at the top of the sector, within the funding bodies or the institutions themselves, have abandoned even the pretence of defending academic freedom. 

Vice Chancellors and senior managers are appeasing this government. They are prepared to accept the further institutionalisation of racism, developed in the Prevent policies and the ridiculous “International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance” working definition of antisemitism, and instead of defending academic freedom when it matters, go along with the targeting of pro-Palestinian academics and students.

As a trade union, UCU, with its history of supporting Palestine, must ensure that freedom of speech and academic freedom are defended and debated throughout all levels of the union. We need a national campaign to defend members and students. Academic freedom is central to UCU as the UK trade union for academic related, academic and researcher staff. No-one else will defend it unless we will.

There is much we can do within our branches. Including:

  1. Call general meetings to discuss and vote on supporting protests against the bombing of Gaza.
  2. Ensure branch delegations, banners and flags attend demonstrations in support of Palestine. Make our collective visible.
  3. Organise teach-outs to discuss the twin issues of academic freedom and Palestine.
  4. Support student protests and walk-outs on campus and demand University managements, make public statements opposing the conflation of support for Palestine with antisemitism, or support for terrorism.

One Reply to “UKRI, Palestine and Academic Freedom: How UK research funding moved from critical thinking to Blacklisting and McCarthyism”

  1. I, as a retired lecturer and long standing member of UCU, fully support the four point aims, expressed in this article. Our union along with the trade union movement as an whole, must fight rigorously to protect our essential and historical long standing freedoms. This includes most of all, the unhindered and lawful protection of the right to freedom of speech. The dogs of war who advocate authoritarian rule over free and critical thinking people, must be defeated and permanently thrown into the dustbin of history.

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