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Status of Academic Freedom

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Summary

The idea of academic freedom, although varying in different countries, pertains to a scholar’s liberty to express her/his ideas without the fear of ‘official interference’ or ‘personal disadvantage’. Such freedom, which is essentially freedom of speech, is necessary for the growth of an academic institute.

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The idea of academic freedom

Social scientists have proposed academic freedom as an “ecological requirement” of any academic institute [1]. However, communicating extramural ideas inside a classroom is still a debated issue in this context. For example, a music teacher expressing her views on a political party with which she is affiliated, inside a classroom, may not come under her academic freedom [2]. Others may however, defend the situation by calling it a right to citizens’ freedom of expression. To avoid such confusion, this article will attempt to narrate the idea of academic freedom from a student’s point of view in terms of the freedom to deal with matters within the academic space.

 

A few countries consider academic freedom seriously, and thus mandate laws to define it. For examples, according to Section 162 (4) (a) (v) of the Education Act 1989 of New Zealand, universities “accept a role as critic and conscience of society” [3]. However, in India, the status of academic freedom is confusing and often contested. A few possibilities might be pointed out to clarify why this fuzzy situation has sustained over the years. First of all, there is hardly any effort from the authorities to make students aware of their rights inside an academic institute. The unwillingness may arise either from a hegemonic mind-set or from simple negligence or a hybrid version of these two factors depending on the nature of governing structures and ideologies.  As a consequence, students remain largely unaware of their rights to exercise academic freedom. On top of that, authoritarianism has stepped into academic spaces and in several instances has attempted to vandalise institutions in a purported manner with common students being attacked under what they regard as ‘sedition’ 4]. Only, a handful of concerned students raise their independent voices as democratic citizens and are subsequently tagged as “anti-national”. As a result, a large proportion of the student community is intimidated and thus stop raising their questions even if some of them are aware of freedom of speech.  Such calibrated response of student community is now spreading like a disease enfeebling the academic freedom of institutions.

 

Effects of academic unfreedom

There are several effects of academic unfreedom and a few of them will be discussed below. The vulnerable nature of students has empowered the authorities over the years. Effect of rapid empowerment of authoritarian hierarchy in academic space has culminated to even restricting PhD research topics [5]. One of the major cons of having a silent student community in scientific institutions is the encroachment of third-party organisations that often associate with pseudo-scientific propaganda [6]. Getting legitimized at topmost academic institutions (mostly famous for their scientific output) encourages these business organisations to spread their charismatic sermons in the society more effectively [7]. Evidently, other than common people, scholars who are studying in the scientific discipline may fail to logically analyse the sermons spoken in the name of science. Academic unfreedom has already played its significant role to mute the students’ voice.

 

Fear of expression is likely to be one of the possible reasons for increasing mental health issues among students. Some of the premier institutes, for example, IISc, IISER Pune, IIT Kanpur, etc. have tried to strengthen the mental support group inside the campus but its effectiveness remains to be assessed in the long run. It is important to note that several mentally broken students are at the risk of being easily targeted by those business organisations, who in turn get their easy access inside the academic institutions. Some of these organisations are accused of spreading pseudo-science [8].

 

Why academic freedom is contested in India?

If academic freedom were a ‘subset’ of freedom of speech, why do we explicitly use the word “academic”?[9] Social scientists argue that academic development requires “critical thinking”, “independent mindedness”, “courageous questioning” and “collaboration” [10]. Any authoritarian structure, will judge these categories (expect collaboration) as seditious or rebellious. As a result, students are pushed to restrain their freedom. Asking questions, which is the fundamental duty of students, is compromised. The decreasing number of students pursuing their career in humanities and liberal arts are also weakening the backbone of society. Even the students who are studying these subjects primarily focus on career-specific goals, i.e. getting financial stability. Views of the present-day politics, economics and society are kept as separate issues from the academics. Science students, in general, have always rested within the ivory-towers of society. Their futile voice is often heard only when the scholarship hike is delayed. A large number of science or medical students in subject-specific institutes (such as engineering or medical colleges) have never probably looked a page of a humanities book. Recently some of these institutes are offering humanities courses but in the rat race of market-driven educational policy, the outcome of these course remains to be seen.

 

The need for academic freedom

Academic scholars constitute a large part of the intellectual asset of a nation. Critical thinking, courageous questioning and independent mind-set is a part of the learning process and so, scholars asking questions should not invite others to label them as problem-makers. It is the need of the hour to realise that academic freedom is crucial to sustaining democracy. Sensible students becoming socially active will improve the system of governance [10]. Voices with strong rationale and firm logic are supposed to be listened by the authorities. If the students remain united on noble causes, their courageous questions will be appreciated in the larger forum and the idea of academic freedom will be more fructuous in future days.

 

References:

  1. Visvanathan, Shiv (2019). The Logic of Academic Freedom in The Idea of a University Ed. Apoorvanand, Context publishe
  2. Tierney, William, and Nidhi S. Sabharwal. “Debating Academic Freedom in India.” Redbook 96 (2010).
  3. Jones, D. G., Galvin, K., & Woodhouse, D. (2000). Universities as critic and conscience of society: The role of academic freedom. New Zealand Universities Academic Audit Unit.
  4. Abbott, A., (2019), Attacks on scholars worldwide raise concern, Nature News
  5. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Gujarat-govt-gives-universities-list-of-topics-for-PhD-theses/articleshow/51986510.cms
  6. One of the books that were being distributed inside science campus: https://krishna.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/The-Scientific-Basis-of-Krishna-Consciousness-Svarupa-Damodar-dasa-Ph.D..pdf
  7. The following slides were presented in one of the programs at the Indian Institute of Science. http://practicalphilosophy.in/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/Introduction-to-Life-Skills.pdf? (Slide 4 states: “Dharma is the only uniqueness of man. Without Dharma man is not different from animal”.)
  1. Pseudoscience-unchallenged at IIT Kanpur. http://www.thoughtnaction.co.in/2013/01/pseudoscience-unchallenged-at-iit-kanpur/
  2. Jaya, Niraja Gopal (2019). The Idea of Academic Freedom in The Idea of a University Ed. Apoorvanand, Context publisher
  3. Chandra, Pankaj (2019). Questioning Academic Freedom in The Idea of a University Ed. Apoorvanand, Context publisher

Jyotirmoy Paul is a PhD student in the Centre for Earth Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. He can be reached at jyotirmoyp@iisc.ac.in

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author

 

This article is part of a Confluence series on Students and Political Protests. The remaining articles in this series can be found here.

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