Protecting academic freedom is as relevant as ever

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18 October 2017

“Teachers are change-makers, for human rights and dignity, for inclusion, for resilience,” said Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director-General.

If there is one thing all participants to the World Teachers’ Day conference, held on 5 October at UNESCO HQ in Paris, agreed on, it is the following: the 1997 UNESCO Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel is more relevant now than ever, especially when it comes to academic freedom.

David Edwards, Deputy General Secretary of Education International, noted that today, “as never before, a free teaching profession must inculcate students with the values of democracy and the competencies of healthy skepticism, critical thinking, scientific methods, understanding of history, and media and internet literacy.”

However, this can only be done by teachers whose academic freedom is respected, guaranteed and protected.  

What is academic freedom?  

The 1997 Recommendation defines academic freedom as “the right, without constriction by prescribed doctrine, to freedom of teaching and discussion, freedom in carrying out research and disseminating and publishing the results thereof, freedom to express freely their opinion about the institution or system in which they work, freedom from institutional censorship and freedom to participate in professional or representative academic bodies.”

James Turk, Director of the Centre for Free Expression at the Faculty of Communication and Design, Ryerson University (Canada), further unpacked academic freedom as defined in the 1997 Recommendation, explaining that it “has four components: freedom of teaching, freedom of research, freedom of intramural expression and freedom of extramural expression.”

Freedom of intramural expression means that teaching personnel is not only allowed to teach according to their knowledge, but that they can take part in the administration of their institutions. This is supported by the freedom of extramural expression, which gives teachers the capacity to share their research outcomes and disseminate the knowledge acquired.

Academic freedom allows teaching personnel to take part in political debates and decisions that impact the quality of education through advocating and requesting adequate resources and funding.

This definition focuses not only on the guarantee of higher-education teachers’ academic freedom and autonomy in teaching and in the pursuit of their research work, but also aims to ascertain that the material they choose to teach is in line and up to date with research conducted in their field of study. It also aims to ensure that teaching personnel be guaranteed a say in the management and decisions taken by their institutions.

Institutional autonomy above academic freedom?

This concept is defined in the 1997 Recommendation as “the institutional form of academic freedom and a necessary precondition to guarantee the proper fulfilment of the functions entrusted to higher-education teaching personnel and institutions.” It is further highlighted as a right to be protected and defended by Members States.

Institutional autonomy is also a key proponent to academic freedom as it allows higher-education teaching personnel to shape the curricula they teach as well as its associated materials based on informed research pursued in the relevant fields.

However, if a narrow definition of institutional autonomy is used, it puts administrative prerogatives above teachers’ research and teaching freedom. As highlighted by Prof. Turk, there are “many instances when the “university” through the administration or lay governing board overturns a decision of the faculty, fails to consult the faculty, or interferes with teachers’ research work and teaching.”

The challenges ahead

The limited support received by higher-education institutions in terms of resources and funding slows the capacity-building function of these institutions, as they cannot conduct research that would inform curricula and teaching material both at national, regional and global levels. It also leaves them vulnerable to outside pressure dictating not only the curriculum taught, but also the research undertaken.

Delivering an address on behalf of the International Labour Organization, Oliver Liang, Head of Public and Private Services Unit further noted that “research currently being undertaken by the ILO shows that the academic freedom and autonomy of higher-education personnel is increasingly being challenged by various trends both within and outside academia.” Indeed, we see today how political and economic pressure further reduce academic freedom within and outside higher education institutions.

This was also highlighted by Ms Bokova, who stated that today “in too many cases, teachers are not getting the support they deserve, they face restrictions and barriers, they are excluded from decisions that matter to them.”

Academic freedom is the basis upon which rests much of the educational system. As Mr. George Haddad, President of Paris 1 Panthéon – Sorbonne University, reminded everyone “the higher education world is a world of freedom: freedom to innovate, freedom to create, freedom to dream and freedom to share”. In addition, the continued implementation and respect of the 1997 Recommendation is one of the ways to guarantee its protection. However, academic freedom should not be without its limits, which are to be provided by the professional standards defined for the profession.