Virtual library on academic freedom to be launched

Egypt is to launch an e-library on university freedoms aimed at promoting and supporting academic freedom, improving awareness of the concept and shedding light on legal and social aspects of human rights.

The virtual library will be launched on 24 April by the Cairo-based Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, or AFTE, which was established in 2006 and is also developing web resources across a spectrum of free speech areas.

It will help lawyers, human rights activists and decision-makers by providing information about legislative structures governing university freedoms and issues around violations of the rights of the academic community. It will also promote research on academic freedom.

The library contains summaries of masters and doctoral theses and of books and studies that address academic freedom issues, including histories of student movements, student freedoms, educational planning, higher education quality, the economics of education and educational policies.

It also highlights laws regulating Egyptian universities and decisions issued by Egyptian courts, and documents the basic legal principles set down by these provisions.

The virtual library will review high-profile cases that have occurred in Egyptian universities, their characteristic features and how they were dealt with, including legally and in the media, and international experiences that reflect criteria for dealing with similar issues.

AFTE will also launch an academic freedom programme focusing on documenting violations in Egypt and providing support to those subjected to them. It will monitor all forms of legal restraints that restrict teaching and the appointment of university leaders, and international statutes that regulate work inside higher education institutions, especially those related to student activities.

According to a 2005 Human Rights Watch report, Reading Between the Red Lines: The repression of academic freedom in Egyptian universities, academic freedom violations have pervaded Egyptian higher education.

Since the early 1990s, academics have faced public condemnation, judicial convictions, physical violence and other forms of intimidation from government officials as well as private groups and individuals.

However, the 2012 Freedom House Freedom in the World report indicated that academic freedom improved somewhat in 2011, after former president Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign after nearly 30 years in power.

The report pointed out that senior university officials are no longer appointed by government and that many Mubarak-era education officials resigned during the year, sometimes following faculty strikes.

Magdi Tawfik Abdelhamid, a researcher at Cairo's National Research Centre, welcomed the new library. “After Mubarak’s ouster in early 2011, promoting freedom and independence of higher education institutions will be a vital tool for enhancing a successful democratic transformation in Egypt,” Abdelhamid told University World News.

Improving academic freedom would help develop universities as centres for the exchange of knowledge and the development of thought, a society that accepted dialogue and different points of view, and graduates able to participate in the public sphere.

Abdelhamid said the virtual library should join forces with similar institutions regionally and internationally, such as the Jordan-based Academic Freedom Watch, to promote academic freedom at the Arab level.