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University Student Activism and Academic Freedom

by Shanie

"So, go my son, go
as a gentle summer breeze, or,
if you must, an insurgent autumn gust, and, in time,
the world will go along with you,
as your walking shoes
take on the certain rhythm of the stars."
-(Rienzi Crusz, Sri Lankan born Canadian poet)

(December 25, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Sri Lanka’s Minister of Higher Education this week lamented that 60% of the academic staff at our state universities lack a post-graduate doctoral qualification. He stated that t his situation was because many academics lacked the financial resources to go abroad for post-graduate studies. He said he was going to introduce a system where local universities would offer programmes for doctoral qualifications with only a minimum period spent abroad for research. This would ease the financial burden on the academics and at the same time, save foreign exchange for the country. This is the same argument he offers for inviting the private sector to set up universities with or without foreign collaboration.

Minister S B Dissanayake seems to be putting the cart before the horse. Our Universities have the staff and can provide the opportunities for research on most fields of study. There is a case for research into the pure sciences being done in universities and institutions abroad which provide greater facilities for such research; but much of the research in the applied sciences, particularly the social sciences, must have relevance to the needs of society. This does not, of course, mean that we cannot benefit by foreign scholars who are able to supervise research. Foreign scholars can certainly improve the quality of our teaching and research. But this can be done by the Universities setting up mechanisms with foreign universities for exchange of scholars. Such programmes will be mutually rewarding. In the early decades of our Universities, we benefited greatly from foreign scholars who spent brief periods here, both teaching as well as engaging in research together with young lecturers and undergraduates.

Autonomy and Academic Freedom

We can go back to that kind of mutual exchange of scholars. But that requires our universities to enjoy autonomy and academic freedom, free from political interference. It also requires our academics and the university administration to assert their right to autonomy and academic freedom. A bold young academic recently wrote: "There is fear that views that are contrary to those of the establishment cannot be voiced and that the expression of those views will not be permitted. Several academics and student organizations exercise self-censorship due to this fear. ‘Academic freedom’ has been undermined as a result and there is a sense of fear and reluctance to engage in a free exchange of ideas – one of the most critical roles of academics and students. An environment, in which ideas can be exchanged freely, will also enable academics to pursue truth and thereby contribute to the advancement of mankind. Where that freedom is curtailed, patronage, partiality and apathy take root."

There have also been other academics who have had the courage to speak their mind on issues of good governance and university administration. But it is only a small minority who do so. The vast majority choose to remain silent in the face of threats and intimidation. Sadly, these threats, veiled and sometimes not-so-veiled, emanate even from some highly politicized Vice Chancellors themselves. Recently, a function organized jointly by a department within a University and two UN agencies to celebrate the International Human Rights Day. The theme was to honour women defenders of human rights the chief speaker was to be Sunila Abeyesekera, a well known human rights activist. Assuming that she would be critical of the political establishment, the Vice Chancellor not only banned the function from taking place in the University but also reportedly alerted the CID to the event.

Student Unrest

In another University, as this column has reported before, the Vice Chancellor allegedly sent some girls to the Hospital calling for a ‘virginity test’; he also reportedly walked into the Sangharamaya with his security officers who reportedly beat up a student monk. In this same University, suspension notices were served on several students for damaging university property. It appears one of those who was served the suspension notice had died several months earlier. If that is correct, then it is clear that the suspension notices were served not because the students were caught in any act of indiscipline but from a list of student activists prepared much earlier by the administration.

In 2008, Professor Narada Warnasuriya, the then Vice Chancellor of Kelaniya, delivered the Nandadasa Kodagoda Memorial Oration on ‘University Governance and Student Unrest’. In that, he quoted with approval the conclusion of Professor Gerald Pieris’ essay on student unrest in our Universities: "For several decades now the pious pronouncements that politics must be kept out of the University has been heard from many quarters. But in reality what tends to be objected is the politics with which one does not agree. Past experience indicates ion fact it is not possible to keep politics out of the University. What seems possible and desirable is to keep the decision making processes of the University free of political prejudice and bias." Professor Warnasuriya himself says that Universities have ceased to provide space for free and open discussion of ideas and values. The intellectual environment is not conducive to independent thinking. Another former Vice Chancellor Professor Savitri Goonesekere was more severe in her criticism. She said: "No amount of local or World Bank funding poured into universities to improve what is described as the ‘Relevance and Quality of University Education’ will create a vibrant intellectually lively university community with high standards of excellence in teaching, research and learning, if there is cynical disregard of the core values on freedom of thought, expression and personal integrity in academic life. Universities may generate knowledge, but hardly the wisdom to understand the lessons of history on the link between democratic accountable governance and human well being."

Communities of Excellence

In the not-so-distant past, our Universities were communities of excellence in teaching, research and learning. There was also a vibrant intellectual environment which encouraged free exchange of ideas and thought. Privatisation of university education is not the panacea to set right the deterioration in the values of the state universities; nor would it save any foreign exchange for the country. On the contrary, it is more likely to see a further deterioration in the state universities and a further loss of foreign exchange; besides, of course, undoing all the Kannangara reforms that enabled so many of our rural youth to enter our Universities, to adorn our professions, our public service and the academic community. We need instead to reform our University system, to encourage private sector funding for our Universities (as some Universities are already attempting to do) and to allow for a vibrantly independent academic community, free of political interference.

Minister Dissanayake must also know that the lack of a doctorate does not necessarily make a person an inadequate teacher. From the beginning up to the sixties, some of the respected university academics like Doric de Souza and Justin LaBrooy who for years adorned the English and History Departments respectively did not have doctorates. Even in the post-graduate Department of Education, there was K Nesiah, who did not have a doctorate.

In 2005, the Canadian Association of University Teachers issued a policy Statement on academic freedom. Our own Federation of University Teachers’ Association would do well to adopt a similar statement. The CATA is worth reading in full:

1. Post-secondary educational institutions serve the common good of society through searching for, and disseminating, knowledge, truth, and understanding and through fostering independent thinking and expression in academic staff and students. Robust democracies require no less. These ends cannot be achieved without academic freedom.

2. Academic freedom includes the right, without restriction by prescribed doctrine, to freedom of teaching and discussion; freedom in carrying out research and disseminating and publishing the results thereof; freedom in producing and performing creative works; freedom to engage in service to the institution and the community; freedom to express freely one’s opinion about the institution, its administration, or the system in which one works; freedom from institutional censorship; freedom to acquire, preserve, and provide access to documentary material in all formats; and freedom to participate in professional and representative academic bodies.

3. Academic freedom does not require neutrality on the part of the individual. Academic freedom makes intellectual discourse, critique, and commitment possible. All academic staff must have the right to fulfill their functions without reprisal or repression by the institution, the state, or any other source.

4. All academic staff have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, expression, assembly, and association and the right to liberty and security of the person and freedom of movement. Academic staff must not be hindered or impeded in exercising their civil rights as citizens, including the right to contribute to social change through free expression of opinion on matters of public interest. Academic staff must not suffer any institutional penalties because of the exercise of such rights.

5. Academic freedom requires that academic staff play a major role in the governance of the institution. Academic freedom means that academic staff must play the predominant role in determining curriculum, assessment standards, and other academic matters.

6. Academic freedom must not be confused with institutional autonomy. Post-secondary institutions are autonomous to the extent that they can set policies independent of outside influence. That very autonomy can protect academic freedom from a hostile external environment, but it can also facilitate an internal assault on academic freedom. To undermine or suppress academic freedom is a serious abuse of institutional autonomy.

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