ETHIOPIA: Academic freedom in East African universities

The Network for Education and Academic Rights (NEAR) and the Scholars at Risk (SAR) Network held a conference and workshop on academic freedom in Ethiopia last month. The event was organised in partnership with the Forum for Social Studies, the Organisation for Social Science Research in Eastern and Southern Africa and the British Council. Faculty members and researchers from 13 countries participated, including Ethiopia, Ghana, Jordan, Kenya, Rwanda, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Ukraine, UK and the US.

The conference opened with a brief examination of international and regional standards and instruments relating to academic freedom. Case studies on academic freedom in the participants' countries were followed by presentations providing insights into the concerns faced by academics in the region, including ideological pressure, lack of accountability, gender disparity and the need for greater social responsibility among academics.

The conference led to the formation of an African Academic Freedom Network made up, in its initial stages, of representatives of the various countries. The network is pledged to broaden its base and to follow-up on the proposals for future activities. The latter include joint research projects and further workshops in the region, tailored to meet the different needs of university staff, student unions and university leaders.
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SOUTH AFRICA: KwaZulu-Natal professors face hearing

Two eminent professors from the University of KwaZulu-Natal are facing disciplinary proceedings by the university after criticising the vice-chancellor in the media. John van den Berg, a professor of mathematics and Nithaya Chetty, a professor of physics, are accused of breaching a Senate confidentiality clause.

At a university Senate meeting last year, a decision was made to invite faculty responses on academic freedom. The faculty of science and agriculture obliged and drafted a discussion document containing criticisms of the university's record on academic freedom. A dispute arose after Vice-Chancellor Malegapuru Makgoba wanted the document referred to a sub-committee rather than directly to the Senate itself.

The professors suggested the vice-chancellor was trying to suppress the document. Earlier this year, the two academics were approached by the media about the dispute and they also wrote about it on their website, Change@UKZN. According to the academics' representative, Alan Rycroft of the National Tertiary Education Staff Union, an investigation was launched and charges were laid. Rycroft confirmed that the charges were threefold:
(a) failing to take due care in communicating with the media;
(b) breaching the confidentiality of the Senate; and
(c) dishonesty and /or gross negligence in alleging the vice chancellor had no right to omit the faculty of science and agriculture document on academic freedom from the Senate agenda.

The academics refused to sign an admission of guilt and their efforts to find a solution have been rebuffed. The proceedings are due to begin next month and could lead to the dismissal of both professors.

IRAN: US-Iranian student released on bail

US-Iranian student Esha Momeni has been released from the notorious section 209 of Tehran's Evin prison in Tehran after paying $200,000 in bail, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. The Iranian judiciary claims Momeni committed security offences and her case is under preliminary investigation.

Reports indicate she is not allowed to leave the country and must stand before a political tribunal to face charges. Momeni, a master's student at California State University at Northridge, was arrested last month after an alleged traffic violation. She was held in solitary confinement in the prison and there were widespread fears she might be tortured.

Momeni, 28, who was born in America and brought up in Iran, returned to Tehran from her studies in the US to work on a documentary about Iranian feminists. She conducted video interviews with individuals involved in the 'One Million Signatures' campaign, a programme which fights for equal rights in a country where women are treated as second-class citizens.

Efforts by the campaign to gather signatures and petition the Iranian parliament have greatly irritated the hard-line regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

UK: Newcastle expels forged document students

BBC News reported that a number of foreign students at Newcastle University were told to leave after the certificates they used to gain entry were found to be forged. It is believed 49 Chinese and one Taiwanese student had been accepted into business studies courses in September. After falling behind in their studies, their applications were reviewed and forged English language and degree certificates were discovered.

The forgeries have been handed to the police and the Home Office was also informed. Newcastle University said many of the students appeared to be victims of bogus agents, based either in China or the UK, who were paid to submit applications, including supporting documents, on their behalf.

The students were expelled to protect the interests of hundreds of properly qualified students and the reputation of the university. BBC News said a number of changes to admissions procedures would now be made, including publishing a list of approved agents on the university's website.

SINGAPORE: Lecturer suspended from James Cook University

John Tan, a lecturer in social psychology at Australia's James Cook University in Singapore, was suspended last month because of a pending court case. He was charged with contempt of court with two other men, Isrizal bin Mohamed and Muhammed bin Sariman, for his actions during the defamation trial of Singapore Democratic Party members, of which Tan is the assistant secretary general.

Channel News Asia in Singapore said the three men appeared outside the Supreme Court during the trial wearing identical T-shirt's bearing a picture of a kangaroo dressed in a judge's gown. Tan's suspension ensued after a letter of complaint from a student at the university was sent to the Education Minister.

It described Tan's political activities as well as his association with SDP leader Dr Chee Soon Juan. Despite 28 letters of support from students maintaining Tan's professionalism in teaching, the dean of the university cited reputation concerns as the reason for his dismissal.

Opposition criticism of the government is often stifled in Singapore which has a history of severe defamation laws according to Human Rights Watch Asia.

IRAN: US university presidents visit Iran

The presidents of six American universities arrived in Tehran, following an invitation from Iran's Sharif University of Technology, according to the Persian Journal. The visit was part of an exchange programme between universities in Iran and the US and the project aims to establish a forum for communication, a basis for greater understanding and to strengthen academic links between the two countries.

SPAIN: Bomb injures 28 at university in northern Spain

A powerful car bomb exploded at the University of Navarra in northern Spain last month injuring 28 people, say reports from Associated Press and The Chronicle of Higher Education. The Basque separatist group ETA has been blamed for the attack. AFP News said the regional traffic department received a vague warning of an attack on a university from someone claiming to represent ETA but with no details about which institution would be the target.

* Jonathan Travis is programme officer for the Network for Education and Academic Rights (NEAR).