Examining the idea of the ‘vulnerable student’ to assess the implications for academic freedom

Stuart Waiton*

*Corresponding author for this work

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This paper analyses the concept of vulnerability as it is applied to university students, and also staff, to assess the extent to which it has become a new norm that transforms the understanding of the individual—from being more robust, towards a more fragile sense of personhood. We examine the changing use of the term ‘vulnerable’ over time and with reference to the institutionalisation of the ‘vulnerable subject’. The paper relates this to the theoretical discussion about postmodernism and the ‘end of truth’ within academia, with the subsequent emergence of safe spaces as a mechanism for protecting the vulnerable student. Using snowball sampling, a pilot ethnographic study of academics who have experienced, or claim to have experienced, limits on their academic freedom is developed. One conclusion is that limits to academic freedom stem from within the academy itself. This conclusion is related to the growing understanding that student ‘wellbeing’ necessitates the regulation and ‘policing’ of knowledge and ideas that are deemed to be offensive to the vulnerable student.
Original languageEnglish
Article number88
Number of pages17
Issue number3
Early online date31 Jul 2021
Publication statusPublished - 31 Jul 2021


  • Vulnerability
  • Academic freedom
  • Freedom of speech
  • Prevent strategy
  • Liberalism
  • Safe space


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