Education International
Education International

Academic freedom under threat in fearful times

published 12 November 2007 updated 12 November 2007

In an era of global insecurity, fundamental rights and freedoms are increasingly threatened on university campuses, as in society at large.

Scholars arrested without fair process; academics forbidden to cross borders; research on sensitive topics suppressed; students spied upon; library borrowing records turned over to the authorities – these were only a few disturbing examples raised by delegates at the 6th International Conference on Higher Education and Research.

The conference, organised by Education International and Spanish partner organisations, is taking place 12 to 14 November in Málaga, Spain.

More than 260 higher education trade unionists from numerous countries expressed deep concerns that anti-terrorism laws are creating an extreme chill on academic freedom and even imposing scholarly self-censorship.

A study by Education International, which represents about three million higher education personnel in unions around the world, found that respect for academic freedom is at risk, even in democratic societies.

EI General Secretary Fred van Leeuwen told journalists at the conference that the alarming decline in academic freedom can be attributed to three key factors:

  • Political and ideological constraints imposed by governments which do not want scholars to speak freely or to conduct research that could be politically damaging to ruling elites;
  • Increasing commercialisation and privatisation as universities face dramatic cuts in public funding and are compelled to rely more heavily on private funding;
  • Erosion of collegial governance of higher education institutions, and a rise in corporate models of management.

All of these obstacles to academic freedom pose enormous challenges to academics around the world, van Leeuwen said, and they demand new professional and trade union strategies in response. "Higher education is the most globalised sector of all, and that is why trade unionists, academics and students must come together to resolve these challenges," he said.

For example, James Rice, of the National Education Association, described a new joint initiative between the three higher-education unions in the United States. Called "Free Exchange on Campus," the initiative is designed to raise a united voice against legislative threats to academic freedom.

In another positive development, Kari Kjenndalen, of the Norwegian union NAR, pointed to legislation recently passed in her native country that includes protections for academic freedom.