The source and purpose of academic freedom

Buckle up.

As hinted here and promised here, we’ll today compare what UNESCO, AAUPAUCC, and CAUT, and the University of Waterloo each have to say about the source and/or purpose of academic freedom. Here we go:


Here is the portion of the long preamble to UNESCO’s 1997 “Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel” that explains the purpose of academic freedom:

Conscious that higher education and research are instrumental in the pursuit, advancement and transfer of knowledge and constitute an exceptionally rich cultural and scientific asset,

Also conscious that governments and important social groups, such as students, industry and labour, are vitally interested in and benefit from the services and outputs of the higher education systems,

Recognizing the decisive role of higher education teaching personnel in the advancement of higher education, and the importance of their contribution to the development of humanity and modern society,

Convinced that higher-education teaching personnel, like all other citizens, are expected to endeavour to enhance the observance in society of the cultural, economic, social, civil and political rights of all peoples,

Aware of the need to reshape higher education to meet social and economic changes and for higher education teaching personnel to participate in this process,

Expressing concern regarding the vulnerability of the academic community to untoward political pressures which could undermine academic freedom,

Considering that the right to education, teaching and research can only be fully enjoyed in an atmosphere of academic freedom and autonomy for institutions of higher education and that the open communication of findings, hypotheses and opinions lies at the very heart of higher education and provides the strongest guarantee of the accuracy and objectivity of scholarship and research,

Concerned to ensure that higher-education teaching personnel enjoy the status commensurate with this role, Recognizing the diversity of cultures in the world…

Let’s boil that down: Higher education is important in the transfer of knowledge, as a cultural and scientific asset, and produces benefits for governments and such social groups as students, industry and labour. Higher education teaching personnel advance higher education and thereby contribute to the development of humanity and modern society. But these personnel are vulnerable to untoward political pressures. Further, the right to education, teaching and research require academic freedom.

In short, then, according to UNESCO, academic freedom has its source in the right to education, teaching and research; academic freedom has the purpose of supporting the contributions that higher education makes to various branches of society, to culture, and to humanity.


Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.

Academic freedom is essential to these purposes and applies to both teaching and research. Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth. Academic freedom in its teaching aspect is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning.

Boiled down: The purpose of academic freedom is the advancement of truth in service of the common good.


AUCC has this to say about the purpose of academic freedom:

Academic freedom does not exist for its own sake, but rather for important social purposes. Academic freedom is essential to the role of universities in a democratic society. Universities are committed to the pursuit of truth and its communication to others, including students and the broader community. To do this, faculty must be free to take intellectual risks and tackle controversial subjects in their teaching, research and scholarship.

Boiled down: Academic freedom exists for the important social purposes universities in democratic societies perform in the pursuit of truth.


Post-secondary educational institutions serve the common good of society through searching for, and disseminating, knowledge and understanding and through fostering independent thinking and expression in academic staff and students. Robust democracies require no less. These ends cannot be achieved without academic freedom.

Boiled down: Academic freedom is required for the search for knowledge and the cultivation of independent thinking in service of the common good of democratic society.


Recall that Waterloo spells out academic freedom in its Policies 33 and 71, and in its memorandum of agreement with its faculty association. Policy 33 doesn’t directly explain the purpose of academic freedom. Policy 71 offers the following ground for academic freedom:

Communication, inquiry and the free exchange of ideas are fundamental to a university education, and require an environment of tolerance and respect.

Section 6.4 of the MOA adds:

As the common good of society depends upon an unhampered search for knowledge and its free expression, and as academic freedom in universities is essential to the attainment of each of these purposes in the teaching function of the university as well as in the pursuit of its scholarship and research, those who are guaranteed academic freedom have also a responsibility in exercising it not to infringe upon the academic freedom and rights of other members of the university community.

Boiling those two down: Academic freedom is necessary for university education and for supporting the pursuit of knowledge for the common good of society.

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Phew. That was a lot. But just look what we’ve produced — the first line of our chart!

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Tomorrow, we’ll turn our attention to the various freedoms each of these bodies includes under the umbrella of academic freedom.