Education unions defend and promote academic freedom around the world!

published 15 February 2021 updated 25 February 2021

Academic freedom is in a dire state globally, according to attendees at the recent International Further and Higher Education and Research Conference (IFHERC). Organised virtually by Education International, the conference also expressed its solidarity with harassed and imprisoned academics worldwide, especially in Myanmar and Hong Kong.

On the last day of the conference on 10 February, panellists from different EI regions highlighted the experiences and challenges of higher education staff and institutions in their respective countries and regions.

Ireland: Centralised approach and corporate voices edge out academics

During the session entitled “Unions defending and promoting professional rights in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic”, Annette Dolan, Teachers' Union of Ireland (TUI) Deputy General Secretary, underlined the importance of academic freedom for scientific progress, the pursuit of truth, research, collaboration among academics, and quality higher education.

She also said that the COVID-19 pandemic had clearly demonstrated the importance of safeguarding academic freedom as academics have played a major role in addressing a wide range of responses to the COVID-19 crisis.

However, serious violations of academic freedom and institutional autonomy are on the rise, as is evidenced in the Free to Think Report 2020, which documents 341 attacks on higher education communities in 58 countries around the world, between September 2019 and end-August 2020.

“While my own country of Ireland rates very highly on the academic freedom index, there are still worrying trends in relation to the undermining of academic freedom,” she said. A recent case study or Ireland, written by Kirsten Roberts and Elizaveta Potapova, put a spotlight on the very centralised “top-down” regulatory nature of Irish higher education institutions, added Dolan. Furthermore, after the financial crash of 2008, huge reductions and restrictions (including cuts to the salaries of new entrant lecturers), have been put on the public funding of higher education, while student numbers have increased significantly. However, there has been no corresponding increase in academic staff numbers, resulting in larger class sizes and overworked staff, she said. In addition, there has been an increase in precarious and casual employment, in particular for researchers.

There is also a concern in Ireland, as in many other countries, which researcher Michael Shattock, in his research refers to as the rise of the managerial class in higher education institutions, where the academic voice is marginalised, as the voice of corporate culture replaces the collegial academic one in university governance, Dolan said.

USA: Segregation, a historical threat to academic freedom

Derryn Moten, Vice Chair of the American Federation of Teachers’ (AFT) Higher Education Policy and Planning Council explained that attacks on academic freedom were not new. In the US in the 1950s-1960s, academic freedom was under attack because of the segregation policy, sending white and black students to different schools and educational institutions, before the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka put a halt to it.

Back then, academics and students were threatened with non-renewal of contracts or removal of their teaching certificates if they expressed pro-integration views. They had to resort to action, like in Alabama, where they organised sit-ins in February 1960.

Moten also stressed that freedom in research is fundamental, and that the American Association of University Professors(AAUP) remains a watchdog of academic freedom. University staff benefiting from academic freedom can better advocate for civil and social change, he said.

Malaysia: Level of academic freedom dependent on the government

Suat Yan Lai, of the Malaysian Academic Movement (MOVE), said that academic freedom in the Asia-Pacific region depends on a country's type of government, be it a democracy or an authoritarian regime.

In Malaysia, she said, education unions have joined NGOs to push back the declaration of state of emergency made by the government following the COVID-19 outbreak, in reality an attempt to stay in power. This declaration undermines citizens' political and civil rights, she said.

MOVE has had the support from colleagues of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) and the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) of Australia, Suat Yan Lai recalled.

In Hong Kong, she said, imprisonment is the sanction for those exerting their freedom of speech. With the COVID-19 pandemic raging, a Beijing-imposed National Security Law (NSL) has been enforced: many protest slogans have been banned, a Hong Kong “national anthem” forbidden, and protesters have been arrested for holding up blank pieces of paper. The NSL is vague, outlawing secession, subversion, “terrorism”, and “collusion with foreign forces”, and forbidding people from “inciting hatred against the central and Hong Kong government”.

Colombia: international and national recognition of academic freedom and related rights

Pedro Hernández, President of the Asociación Sindical de Profesores Universitarios (ASPU) in Colombia, one of the most dangerous countries for academics, also addressed the session. He mentioned how the report by the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Irene Khan, acknowledged the special role played by academics and academic institutions in democratic society. It also notes that, without academic freedom, societies lose one of the essential elements of democratic self-governance.

For him, academic freedom means freedom of speech, freedom of critical research, critical thinking. These are rights recognised nationally and internationally. And “members of academic institutions must be protected from military bullets”.

He insisted that, in Latin America, in the higher education sector, there is another pandemic, linked to the COVID-19 one: precarious conditions for academics.

“We need more respect for higher education institutions for more democracy,” he stressed.

He also warned about the increasing power of transnational organisations providing education services. This situation leads to issues such as surveillance of classrooms and a drastic reduction in the number of teachers, he said.

In a new report, he noted, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights explains that it is generally concerned about the rise of unemployment, as economies shrink because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Regarding the pandemic itself, he condemned the fact that researchers in Brazil who criticised the way the public health crisis has been dealt with have been harassed.

“We will continue pushing for freedom of research, of critical thinking, and teaching people critical thinking and critical citizenship, teaching students democratic values,” he concluded.

Ghana: Union action able to safeguard academic freedom from governmental interference

In Ghana and West Africa, there is academic freedom and freedom of association, and students can study whatever they want to study, stressed Charles Ofosu Marfo, President of the University Teachers Association of Ghana (UTAG).

He explained that, in Ghana, there is a system allowing teachers and academics to follow a programme approved by the government and to work within national committees. Higher education staff can research the topics they want and give the classes they want, he said.

However, the government tried to pass legislation that would have allowed the Education Ministry to give universities orders and to interfere in their operation, especially concerning the financing of higher education institutions.

Through strike and diverse actions, the UTAG was able to force the government to respect academic freedom and abandon the bill.

This respect for academic freedom and basic human and trade union rights does not exist in Eastern Africa, in countries like Sudan, Uganda, and Cameroon, he added. In these counties, it is safer to be cautious and not oppose the government views in order to avoid harassment and trouble.

“With the COVID-19 pandemic, we experience many challenges to teaching, in Ghana and throughout Africa,” he insisted. “With no proper equipment, unstable electricity and Internet connection, we cannot provide quality education online.”

Education International: International solidarity with academics in Myanmar and Hong Kong

In her concluding remarks, Education International Deputy General Secretary Haldis Holst mentioned the “thought-provoking” research by Anna Hogan and Ben Williamson, Pandemic Privatisation in Higher Education: Edtech & University Reform. “Both the students’ enthusiastic reaction to the report as well as the university sector’s assessment of the pandemic have shown that it is impossible to rely exclusively on edtech.”

“We need to decide on how we, as the educators, should move forward to ensure that edtech is led by our profession,” she said.

She reminded attendees that defending academic freedom was already high on the agenda for Education International and its affiliates in 2019, during Education International’s Congress in Bangkok, Thailand, with two resolutions adopted on higher education and academic freedom.  Holst was adamant that, “in today’s world, the threats and violations have probably only increased. Part of the reason is the new threats related to online teaching, but another part can only be explained by the sad nature of repressive regimes to use a crisis like COVID to their own advantage”.

Holst further said that “recent cases in Hong Kong and Myanmar show that repressive regimes won’t let go of a chance to accuse academics and teachers to ‘influence’ their students’ minds with liberal/progressive ideas”. Also, in Turkey, institutional nominations have been bypassed by direct appointments and/or dismissals directly from the President.

Holst adjourned the meeting by calling for support for democracy in Myanmar and Hong Kong. In support, participants turned on their cameras and held up 3 fingers – a sign of solidarity in the protests in Myanmar.

To access the full report: Pandemic Privatisation in Higher Education: Edtech & University Reform, by Hogan, A. & Williamson, B. (2021), please click here. The executive summary can be found here.

Watch the presentation of the report here