Building academic freedom amid political instability

Higher education experts from around the world have proposed strategies to protect and promote academic freedom and institutional autonomy amid the waves of socio-political transformation that have followed Arab Spring revolutions in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.

Their ideas were debated at an international conference on “The University and the Nation: Safeguarding higher education in Tunisia and beyond”, organised by the Tunisian Association for the Defence of University Values, New York University’s Center for Dialogues and the Scholars at Risk network and held in Tunisia from 21-22 February.

Robert Quinn, executive director of the Scholars at Risk network, told University World News: "The conference provided opportunities for hope as the new constitution in Egypt includes protection for autonomy, the draft constitution for Tunisia includes academic freedom, and the drafters of the Libyan constitution are working on language including both.

“If scholars and higher education institutions join together, as they did at Manouba, both to defend these core values and to work together to secure positive, legal protections, then the future of the Arab university is much brighter.”

The conference

The conference was the third phase of a project that began when Tunisian scholars visited New York last April. In June last year, Scholars at Risk visited Tunisia and met with the country’s president, the head of the National Constituent Assembly, the higher education minister and university leaders, among others.

According to Scholars at Risk, the conference opened up discussion to the higher education sector and the public, and helped to “set an agenda for future research and sharing of experiences between higher education leaders in the Arab world and the West on commonly arising challenges to core values”.

Quinn said the conference concluded with a renewed commitment for academics and higher education leaders to work together across borders to promote academic freedom and institutional autonomy across the Arab world.

The University of Manouba in Tunis hosted the event. It has been the site of clashes sparked by religious and political divides over various issues. Academics have been threatened, and during last year's visit by Scholars at Risk expressed fear for their safety and concern over lack of free debate.

The conference urged close monitoring of the prosecution of Habib Kazdaghli, dean of letters, arts and humanities at the University of Manouba, in the hope that charges against him will be dismissed.

There have been demonstrations in support of Kazdaghli, who has been accused of assaulting a woman student who was wearing a niqab, the Islamic face covering – a charge he has vehemently denied. Supporters claim that the professor of contemporary history is being persecuted for his outspoken views.

What do do?

The conference called for follow-up activities around academic freedom and autonomy – not only in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt but also in Morocco and Algeria.

Higher education leaders, academics and students must demand recognition of these values, honour them in their interactions with one another and with the public, and use them to develop knowledge for the benefit of all, said Quinn.

The academic community should actively engage with political leaders and the public to promote understanding and support of academic freedom and autonomy as essential for the higher education sector to serve society, and advocate for their protection in university charters as well as national constitutions.

There should also be clear public statements in support of higher education and individuals who come under pressure from outside actors, as was the case at Manouba University.

Quinn pointed out that higher education institutions could join together in solidarity to defend these values, including by joining networks such as Scholars at Risk, which has a Tunisia section, and by contributing to its international monitoring network, which tracks pressures and attacks on higher education worldwide.

Manar Sabry, an Egyptian higher education expert at the US-based State University of New York, told University World News that a first and important step in promoting academic freedom and autonomy was clearly defining the two terms.

She stressed the importance of educating students and the public on the benefits of academic freedom and addressing the stereotype in the region that academic freedom was only related to the teaching of evolution and creating nude sculptures.

This would help protect academic freedom from attack by religious groups.

“There is a need for a more sophisticated approach to defending academic freedoms in Arab universities,” she said, and for professors to work together to identify solutions and advocate them.

“As we push for more academic freedom, we must address the new challenges facing the region, including political instability. Universities must be sensitive to society’s needs without allowing others to affect their autonomy.”

Sabry argued that it was vital to decentralise rigid governance systems, and to revisit the legal status of higher education institutions to allow more autonomy, which in turn would enable them to respond in a timely manner to socio-economic and political changes.

“We must review the relation between the state and universities so that the role of the state shifts from controlling to regulatory. The government’s role should be mainly to provide policy guidance. On the other hand, there must be a clear system for monitoring and evaluating higher education institutions,” Sabry said.

“Academic freedom requires stable regimes and more resources. Legislators should revisit several laws that support academic freedom and autonomy as well as increasing universities’ resources. In addition, there is a continued need for structural university reform, particularly when it comes to governance.

“It is time for more efficiency and accountability measures,” Sabry emphasised.