Education International
Education International

Academic freedom at risk in the knowledge society

published 1 September 2006 updated 1 September 2006

In 1992, when the Sinaia Statement on Academic Freedom and University Autonomy was adopted under the auspices of UNESCO, it stated: “history has shown that violations of academic freedom and institutional autonomy have high costs in intellectual regression, social alienation and economic stagnation.”

Unfortunately, there is much to be said for history repeating itself. There has been declining respect for the principle of academic freedom, to the point where it is being blatantly undermined. Put simply, we are at a crisis point. The 1997 UNESCO Recommendation Concerning the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel guarantees this right, stating that “higher-education teaching personnel are entitled to the maintaining of academic freedom.” The 1992 Sinaia Statement provides that “governments and the public must respect the rights of universities to serve as centres of completely free inquiry and of social criticism.” Academic freedom is not only a right, but a responsibility of higher education institutions and academics. They rely on the state and society to ensure that academic staff are able to carry out their jobs without restrictions, threats to their independence, careers, and even to their personal freedom, safety and indeed their lives. What is equally intriguing and upsetting is that, although one would think that only progress could have been made over the years, there actually has been a visible deterioration of this principle worldwide. In Northern Europe, there is great concern over visible signs of increased bureaucracy and control, political control of the use of research resources and the reduction of researchers’ free right of publication. Academic staff in most Anglo-American countries have suffered from greater government oversight and management, with the US in particular experiencing a number of disturbing incidents related to the “war on terrorism.” In Latin America, government-related restrictions applied over the years have led to the wearing down of academic freedom, while external pressure on academic staff has also had the same negative effect in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, and the Middle East. All this has been coupled with recent cases of violence or other forms of abuse against academic staff in a number or countries. In some countries, academic staff believe that to speak out on controversial issues or to make statements that could be interpreted as critical of government or institutional policy will threaten their jobs or opportunities for advancement. In many industrialised countries, external pressure arises from the ever-growing drive towards globalisation, competitiveness, commodification, and the increasing use of market mechanisms in higher education. Research funding is increasingly an issue of concern, as funding bodies often subject the use thereof to a number of conditions (e.g. regarding the publication and use of research results). In other countries, the main concern is of a more serious nature, linked to under-development, and internal political or conflict constraints. Experience shows that once these latter countries overcome such problems, academic freedom is not necessarily guaranteed. Problems arising from globalisation and commodification, which are already on the rise, will undeniably grow. In this context, the adoption of a recommendation on academic freedom and university autonomy by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is a positive sign. It states that these twin principles together constitute “a fundamental requirement of any democratic society.” and that they “should be legislatively, preferably constitutionally, guaranteed.” Although this has always been the most desirable aim for the academic community, it seems that even a legal guarantee may not be enough anymore. In many countries where legal protections exist, academic freedom is still undermined in practice. Notwithstanding that this principle has been affirmed time and time again in various national and international legal texts, it is a fragile freedom which constantly needs to be justified and clarified. Academic freedom is not an outdated privilege or simply a protection granted to the academic community. Indeed, academic freedom is based on a clear rationale that links academics to society. In the context of fostering cultural diversity, the 1992 Sinaia Statement refers to the “obligation” of universities to speak out against all kinds of intolerant behaviour, and refers to the “commitment to open and independent inquiry” as a “defining characteristic of the university.” Academic freedom is an essential criterion for the development of science, and the development and circulation of knowledge which is genuine, objective and impartial. This is precisely the academic sector‘s contribution to society. Ironically, it is in the present era of the so-called ‘knowledge society’ that this fundamental link is being completely disregarded outside the academic community. By Angele Attard and Monique Fouilhoux Angele Attard is an intern at EI, and Monique Fouilhoux is Coordinator of EI’s Education and Employment Unit.