For some time now, it’s been an article of faith for liberals that a freer culture, and a more generous stance on academic freedom in general, is not just worthwhile in itself, but is also of demonstrable practical use.

An academic culture that encourages freedom of thought in the humanities and social sciences, the argument goes, can spread ideas and ways of thinking that will then shape the hard sciences too, encouraging a wider community of creativity that leads to scientific breakthroughs. The top-down nature of authoritarian society, in this argument, prevents the kind of real innovation that a free university system with full protections for academic freedom could provide.

The vital role of academic freedom in creating a world-class university

The theory is neat. To liberals, it is highly attractive. But the publication last month of the QS (Quacquarelli Symonds) rankings of top universities gives pause for thought. At the top were clustered the usual suspects – five US institutions, with MIT at number 1 and Stanford sitting just ahead of Harvard, four British ones including Oxford and Cambridge, and Switzerland’s ETH Zurich making up the top ten.

But go just below that super-elite, and some interesting results emerge. At 12 and 13 are the National University of Singapore (NUS) and the Nanyang Technological University, also in Singapore. At 24 is Tsinghua University, the MIT of China. At 39 is Peking University; at 43, Fudan University in Shanghai.

The new front in Hong Kong's campus war: Critics say reform is vital to preserve academic freedom

You can cut the numbers and data in a number of ways. The QS survey uses a variety of factors, including academic reputation (which can be somewhat circular – people assume a university is great, and so rank it as being great when questioned in the survey), but also numbers of international faculty and students, and research citations per faculty member. Even more recently, the rival Times Higher Education (THE) international rankings have come out, but the message is a similar one: National University of Singapore at 24, Peking University at 29, Tsinghua at 35.

The point here, though, is not the relative ranking of the institutions. Instead, consider that among the top fifty universities, 10 per cent of them are based in two countries where academic freedom is either somewhat limited (Singapore) or heavily limited (China). Hong Kong’s own HKU, HKUST and CUHK are scored at an impressive 27, 36, and 44 respectively by QS, but let’s not count them in this exercise since academic and press freedom are not legally limited in Hong Kong in the same way as in mainland China, although both have undeniably been under severe extra-legal pressure in recent years.

Why these exceptions to the idea that liberal universities produce the best results? For one thing, money talks. It’s notable that authoritarian societies like Russia or Turkey that underspend on higher education don’t have high-ranking institutions. Nor is liberalism enough on its own.

Last Hong Kong governor Chris Patten says academic freedom under threat from government taking its cue from Beijing

This may explain India’s lack of standing on the list, despite the lively, sometimes confrontational, academic culture of its colleges. Even India’s famed IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology) have few international faculty, almost no international students, and emphasise teaching over research.

In contrast, both Singapore and China have made strategic and powerful investments in the university sector, and in particular in the hard sciences. This has had a wider effect, particularly in China, on the wider creative economy. For those who argue that China is incapable of producing high-quality innovation, companies such as Xiaomi and Huawei, who draw on the new research and graduates to be found in China’s scientific powerhouse universities, provide a strong counterargument. While China may not yet be at the forefront of first-level innovation, it has proved highly capable of adapting technology in ways that go well beyond simply cloning someone else’s intellectual property and selling it on.

In 2015, China put 2.1 per cent of its GDP into scientific research and development; the previous year, the European Union as a whole committed some 1.94 per cent. This sum of money, spent well, can buy back top scientists at high salaries and equip the expensive laboratories that cutting-edge hard science needs. And it’s safe politically too. Researchers in the hard sciences are unlikely to run into political problems (unless, like the late Andrei Sakharov or Fang Lizhi, they shift from physics to politics).

But if we accept the premise that more freedom does not necessarily mean higher research and teaching quality, then we have to rethink the idea that academic freedom is an indivisible good. It’s clear that both Singapore and China place significant limits on the boundaries of research for social scientists and scholars of humanities. To be fair, most subjects remain fair game in Singapore, which retains a highly international research faculty in its universities, but work criticising the Singapore government itself, and certain other issues (such as sexual orientation), remains problematic for social scientists working in the city state.

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In China, social scientists and humanists are freer by far than they were under Mao Zedong ( 毛澤東 ), but are still heavily restricted when it comes to publication on issues such as the policies of the top leadership, elements of the history of the Chinese Communist Party, and issues to do with contemporary social unrest, religion, and the formation of civil society organisations. Off the record, many Chinese scholars grumble that academic freedom has become more restricted in the past two years in particular. Yet still the ranking numbers for China’s major universities climb. The idea that if political scientists are not free, then physicists cannot flourish, may not be right.

However, if this is true, then it may be a good thing for the defence of academic freedom. The best arguments for academic freedom, and freedom of speech in general, are not economic ones, but arguments about values. Universities should value academic freedom as a good in and of itself.

Hong Kong universities must uphold the absolute principle of academic freedom

In his compelling, thoughtful and frequently very witty book Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World, Timothy Garton Ash argues for key tenets that should underpin the notion of free speech in society, and it is notable that all of them are essentially about values: among them are “All human beings must be free and able to express ourselves… regardless of frontiers,” and “We must be empowered to challenge all limits to freedom of information justified on such grounds as national security.” These two points are in practice a challenge to governments such as the ones in Beijing and Singapore. He notes wryly that in a Chinese university, a course titled after his book might well be banned.

Yet Garton Ash’s book is unusual in that it takes authoritarian societies including China seriously. Rather than dismissing their claims to different values that make them regard “Western” freedom of speech as less important, it considers the classic arguments for freedom, such as John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, but goes well beyond them, arguing that for a genuinely universal understanding of free speech, the West needs “to listen, perhaps for the first time, to Confucian, Buddhist, Islamic, Indian, Chinese and Burmese perspectives on the subject”.

The new front in Hong Kong's campus war: Critics say reform is vital to preserve academic freedom

Garton Ash makes it clear that freedom of speech, including freedom in the academic sphere specifically, is one of the cornerstones of a genuinely healthy society, and that it should be restricted only on very rare occasions.

A society where people know the truth but cannot speak it cannot be fully at ease with itself. But he is also clear that such freedom is by no means the province of the “West” alone. And one case that he does not make is that the freedom to test and question is valuable because it helps grow the national GDP. After all, if the value of free speech can be calculated in cash terms, then if that monetary value decreases, it provides a perfect excuse for regimes to reduce freedom in turn.

So the message to governments that wish to restrict academic freedom, and freedom of speech more widely, may not be that such restrictions are a barrier to creating universities that are world-class. For good or ill, such governments can simply wave the QS or THE numbers back at their liberal critics and show the rising number of institutions in illiberal societies in the top ranks of academia.

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Instead, liberals need to return to first principles and argue that the pursuit of knowledge should not be restricted because healthy, stable societies do not fear knowledge as such; wise rulers understand that criticism is a healthy and useful element in any society; and that universities that tell their faculty not to look into this closed archive or that closed political meeting are impinging on the most profound value of the university to seek knowledge without boundaries.

Cai Yuanpei, the president of Peking University in the early 1920s during its most liberal and productive days no doubt would have been pleased if the QS or THE rankings had existed in his day. But he surely would have been much keener to have Garton Ash’s principle on academic freedom painted up in big characters on the wall of the old campus where Cai worked, just north of the Forbidden City: “We allow no taboos against and seize every chance for the spread of knowledge.”

Rana Mitter is director of the University China Centre at the University of Oxford and author of A Bitter Revolution: China’s Struggle with the Modern World and China’s War with Japan, 1937-45: The Struggle for Survival