JORDAN: Academic freedom in Arab universities

The second conference on academic freedom in Arab universities took place in Amman, Jordan, at the end of March and agreed to establish a permanent committee to deal with academic freedom issues in Arab countries. The event was organised by the Amman Centre for Human Rights Studies, the Network for Education and Academic Rights (NEAR), the Scholars at Risk Network, and the United Nations University International Leadership Institute. The Arab Organisation for Human Rights in the UK also participated.

Held under the patronage of the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research in Jordan, 17 academics, researchers and educational experts from Arab and foreign countries took part. The meeting discussed the state of academic freedom in Arab universities and possible mechanisms and tools which could be used to raise academic freedom standards and to develop the universities' partnership with society.

The conference discussed academic freedom, autonomy and higher education values, as well as recognition of the hindrances and barriers to academic freedom in universities and related institutions. Time was spent discussing academic freedom concerns in Lebanon, Morocco, UAE, Iraq, Egypt, Palestine, Libya, Sudan, Bahrain, Tunisia, Algeria, Yemen and Jordan. While some problems were country-specific, there was a general consensus about the need for a more sophisticated approach to defending academic freedoms in Arab universities.

Discussions focused on different types of concerns. It was felt that visible mechanisms were needed to show the appointment process of all university staff, including the rector. Concerns were raised about control of the curriculum and the issue of assessment. It was widely agreed that partnership exercises were needed such as small conferences and round-tables on a local, regional and international level. Group participation was far more preferable to any solitary activities that would put an individual at risk. There was also focus on the idea of creating a set of academic standards for the professor and the institution.

Copies of the resolution are available from NEAR.

Students in Iran at risk of torture

Human Rights Watch has called on the Iranian authorities to investigate claims that Ministry of Information agents and interrogators tortured four detained student activists. The four students are active members of Students Seeking Freedom and Equality, a group which clearly states its peaceful intentions to resist various forms of inequality and exploitation.

The arrests appear to be the result of demonstrations planned on university campuses to commemorate Students Day last December. Since then, Iranian authorities have arrested more than 40 students affiliated with the group. Only four remain in detention but two are apparently being held in the notorious Evin prison where they have been subjected to long periods of solitary confinement and physical and psychological ill-treatment, Human Rights Watch has said. Lawyers representing the students have not had access to their clients or their files.

Hamas forces seize Al-Azhar University

According to the New York Times, the Hamas regime has sought to take over Al-Azhar University, one of the last Fatah-controlled institutions in the Gaza Strip. The university, located in Gaza City, has been a Fatah stronghold for nearly 30 years and resisted the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip last June. On Monday 31 March, Hamas activists and police entered the university compound after students and staff protested at a rally that Hamas insisted on holding inside the university campus. When members of the academic staff protested outside, Hamas police beat them with clubs, the Times reported. Hamas denied it had acted improperly and said that the police were simply restoring order.

Lebanese teachers struggle for salary increase

Teachers in Lebanon have taken strike action to reinforce demands for a fair salary increase. Although the cost of living in Lebanon has increased in recent years, salaries across Lebanon have remained fixed for more than a decade. Political tension and military disruptions have made economic growth unpredictable and this has contributed to the general lag in salaries.

On 3 April, teachers across the country staged a one-day strike to pressurise the government to respond to their demands. According to Education International, union leaders from the Teachers Syndicate of Lebanon and the League of Public Secondary School Teachers of Lebanon met the Prime Minister and Education Minister. No action has been taken by the government although the strike was regarded as a success.

Israeli university shut down after Fatah-Hamas clashes

The administration of the Islamic University in Hebron decided to suspend all classes until further notice, following fierce clashes on campus between students affiliated with Fatah and Hamas, the Jerusalem Post reported. The clashes erupted after Hamas supporters distributed leaflets accusing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' forces of arresting four of their colleagues. Sources close to Hamas blamed the Fatah students for instigating the clashes. The university administration accused Hamas students of violating regulations banning the dissemination of inflammatory material on campus. A university official said studies would not be resumed unless both Hamas and Fatah apologised for the riots.

Venezuela to eliminate university entrance examinations

The Minister for Higher Education in Venezuela has announced the Chavez government will seek to eliminate college entrance examinations as part of a plan to make education more accessible, the Bloomberg news agency reports. Knowledge-based exams will be replaced with new systems that include aptitude and vocational testing. The news comes amid increasing concerns that President Hugo Chavez is slowly taking control of all Venezuela's institutions. University leaders have lambasted the move as a politically motivated attack on academic autonomy. With state and municipal elections approaching, critics say the government is using education initiatives to garnish political support from students.

* Professor John Akker is executive director of the Network for Education and Academic Rights (NEAR). He lectures at London South Bank University.