This is freedom for individuals within the academy, rather than the autonomy of academic institutions within society, although the two are linked. While the precise meaning and boundaries of the term are contested, it describes an expectation that individual academics will be able freely to determine a range of matters in relation to teaching, research, and self-governance, protected by legal guarantees of secure and continuing employment. In exercising these freedoms, academics have a responsibility to follow the ethical and integrity values and standards established by their colleagues, peer associations, institutions and, where relevant, professional regulators. Again, the translation of these values into operational standards may be disputed.

The European universities’ Magna Charta Universitatum (1988) declares: ‘Freedom in research and training is the fundamental principle of university life, and governments and universities, each as far as in them lies, must ensure respect for this fundamental requirement’. The European Charter for Researchers (2005) recognises research freedom as ‘the freedom of thought and expression, and the freedom to identify methods by which problems are solved, according to recognised ethical principles and practices’, albeit within institutional, financial and legal constraints.

This freedom is seen as central to the role of the university as a protected space where a search for innovation and scientific truth can be carried out without fearing the impact of external interests or hierarchies. It is, however, conditional upon the acceptance of a responsibility to engage in that search and to exclude those external concerns (Dingwall 2016).