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Academic freedom as vital to democracy as a free press, says UK group

(Index on Censorship/IFEX) - 30 August 2012 - More than 30 years ago, the Index on Censorship published a special issue on academic freedom titled "Scholarship and its enemies". It included a report on the persecution of scientists in the Soviet Union, an article about the harassment of scholars in Czechoslovakia, a feature detailing how Bantu education in South Africa politicised black students and an account of university education in Libya under the rule of Mu'ammer Gaddafi. Since those once monolithic regimes have now fallen, it is ironic that the article that has dated the least and is even prophetic in its vision of the future is a portrait of the threat to universities in the UK written back in 1981. Anthony Arblaster and Steven Lukes warned that academia, and the freedom of scholars, "is under constant and growing pressure from its paymasters, the local education authorities and, above all, central government. The general tendency of these pressures is towards a crude and debased utilitarianism which sees education as an industry, or a production line whose purpose is to 'turn out' persons equipped with the various kinds of skills which the economy and current employment opportunities require".

A generation on, in the 40th anniversary year of the Index, we have returned to the subject of academic freedom in a special issue, "Censors on campus". This includes an essay by Thomas Docherty that gives a stark outline of the consequences of the past 30 years on universities in the UK since the first significant cuts to higher education funding took place. It is a sobering sequel to Arblaster and Lukes' analysis: "the perception of academics as accountable to the requirements of the government of the day rather than the demands of intellectual inquiry has become entrenched: our main priority is to serve business and to do whatever government decides is necessary for the economy".

All three writers recognise the importance of universities for fostering ideas that dissent from the mainstream and the dangers for democracy as a whole when that space is threatened. For Arblaster and Lukes, that freedom depends on the principle that all decisions and judgements are made on academic or educational grounds; for Docherty, it is a licence that is essential for an open society.

As the international cases published in the special issue illustrate, around the world academics are often at the forefront of challenging authoritarianism and orthodoxy both in their research and in direct political activism. Their protection - and the threats that they face - should receive as much attention as attacks on the press.

Yet although there are many organisations and international bodies standing up for journalists, the defence of academic freedom trails behind. The classification of our various freedoms into special interest groups - whether press or academia - is perhaps part of the problem. It is time to recognise that the protection of academic freedom is as fundamental for democracy as the safeguarding of the press - it is, after all, freedom of expression for the whole of society that is at stake.

Turkey is a particularly strong example of the vital role played by academics and how vulnerable they remain to intimidation. As the distinguished author and translator Maureen Freely demonstrates in her report for Index, the pressure on universities, students and scholars is growing. Academics who dare to explore taboo topics that challenge the nationalist mythology, topics that may range from the Armenian genocide to Atatürk, may damage their careers or even face prosecution. One notorious current case is that of the academic Büsra Ersanli, who is facing prosecution over links to an "illegal organisation". She is believed to have been targeted because of her association with the BDP, the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, which has seats in the national assembly. As Freely reports, new networks and campaign groups are now emerging to defend students as well as their teachers.

In Thailand, academics are challenging one of the most notorious chills on free speech: the lese-majesty law that criminalises insult to the king. It carries a minimum jail sentence of three years. A group of young law academics at Thammasat University is courageously leading a campaign to reform the law: they have been banned from holding meetings at their own university, and their spokesman, the celebrated lawyer Worachet Pakeerut, was assaulted on campus earlier this year.

These are scholars whose work takes them into the heart of public life, daring to raise questions that challenge the national identity of their culture.

Although the risks facing scholars at home may be less extreme, the same principle is at stake: the space and the licence to challenge convention. Any government that reduces that freedom, whether on economic or political grounds, shrinks the possibilities for a truly open society.

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