Education unions defend and promote academic freedom around the world!

According to those attending the recent International Conference on Continuing Education and Higher Education and Research (IFHERC), academic freedom is in dire straits around the world. The conference, organized virtually by Education International, also expressed its solidarity with harassed and imprisoned academics around the world, particularly in Myanmar and Hong Kong.

On the final day of the conference on February 10th, panelists from different EI regions highlighted the experiences and challenges faced by university staff and institutions in their respective countries and regions.

Ireland: Central approach and corporate voices displace academics

Annette Dolan, Assistant Secretary General of Teachers & # 39; Union of Ireland (TUI), underlined the importance of academic freedom during the session entitled “Unions Defending and Promoting Professional Rights in the COVID-19 Pandemic” for scientific advancement and the pursuit of truth, research, academic collaboration, and quality higher education.

She also said the COVID-19 pandemic had clearly shown the importance of maintaining academic freedom, as academics have played an important role in managing a variety of responses to the COVID-19 crisis.

Serious violations of academic freedom and institutional autonomy, however, are increasing, as evidenced by the Free to Think Report 2020, which documented 341 attacks on university communities in 58 countries worldwide between September 2019 and the end of August 2020.

"While my own country, Ireland, scores very highly on the Academic Freedom Index, there are still worrying trends in terms of the undermining of academic freedom," she said. ON current case study or Ireland, written by Kirsten Roberts and Elizaveta PotapovaDolan added that the very centralized "top-down" regulatory nature of Irish higher education institutions was in the spotlight. In addition, after the 2008 financial crash, huge cuts and restrictions (including cuts in salaries for newly recruited faculty) have been made to public funding for higher education, while student numbers have increased significantly. However, there has been no corresponding increase in the number of academic staff, resulting in larger classes and overworked staff, she said. In addition, precarious and casual employment, especially for researchers, has increased.

There are also concerns in Ireland, as in many other countries, which researcher Michael Shattock describes in his research as the rise of the leadership class in higher education institutions where the academic voice is marginalized as the voice of corporate culture replaces the collegial academic voice in the university government, said Dolan.

USA: Segregation, a historic threat to academic freedom

Derryn Moten, vice chairman of the higher education policy and planning council of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), said attacks on academic freedom are not new. In the United States, academic freedom was attacked in the 1950s and 1960s due to segregation policies that sent white and black students to various schools and educational institutions before the Brown Supreme Court ruling against Topeka's Board of Education put an end to it .

At that time, academics and students threatened not to renew contracts or to cancel their teaching qualifications if they spoke out in favor of integration. They had to take action, like in Alabama, where they held sit-ins in February 1960.

Moten also stressed that freedom in research is fundamental and that the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) remains a watchdog of academic freedom. University workers who benefit from academic freedom are better able to advocate civil and social change, he said.

Malaysia: Degree of academic freedom depending on the government

Suat Yan Lai of the Malaysian Academic Movement (MOVE) said academic freedom in the Asia-Pacific region depends on a country's form of government, be it a democracy or an authoritarian regime.

In Malaysia, she said, education unions have joined NGOs in an attempt to roll back the state of emergency issued by the government following the COVID-19 outbreak, in reality an attempt to stay in power. This declaration undermines the political and civil rights of citizens, she said.

MOVE was supported by colleagues from the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) and the Australian National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), Suat Yan Lai recalled.

In Hong Kong, detention is the sanction for those who exercise their freedom of speech. With the COVID-19 pandemic, a national security law (NSL) imposed by Beijing was enforced: many protest slogans were banned, a "national anthem" from Hong Kong banned and demonstrators arrested for holding up blank pieces of paper. The NSL is vague, forbidding secession, subversion, "terrorism" and "collusion with foreign forces" and forbidding people to "incite hatred against the central government and the Hong Kong government."

Colombia: international and national recognition of academic freedom and related rights

Pedro Hernández, President of the Asociación Sindical de Profesores Universitarios (ASPU) in Colombia, one of the most dangerous countries for academics, also spoke at the meeting. He mentioned how the report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Expression, Irene Khan, recognized the special role of academics and academic institutions in democratic society. It is also suggested that societies without academic freedom lose one of the essential elements of democratic self-government.

Academic freedom for him means freedom of speech, freedom of critical research, critical thinking. These are nationally and internationally recognized rights. And "members of academic institutions must be protected from military bullets".

He insisted that there is another pandemic in higher education in Latin America linked to COVID-19: precarious conditions for academics.

"We need more respect for higher education institutions for more democracy," he emphasized.

He also warned of the increasing power of transnational organizations providing educational services. This situation creates problems such as classroom surveillance and a drastic reduction in the number of teachers, he said.

In a new report, he stated that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights said it was generally concerned about the rise in unemployment as economies shrink due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On the pandemic itself, he denounced the harassment of researchers in Brazil who criticized the handling of the public health crisis.

"We will continue to advocate freedom of research, critical thinking and the teaching of critical thinking and critical citizenship, and instill democratic values ​​in students," he concluded.

Ghana: Union action to protect academic freedom from state interference

There is academic freedom and association in Ghana and West Africa, and students can study whatever they want, said Charles Ofosu Marfo, president of the University Teachers Association of Ghana (UTAG).

He explained that there is a system in Ghana that allows teachers and academics to follow a government-approved program and serve on national committees. College staff can research the topics they want and give the classes they want, he said.

However, the government attempted to pass laws that would have enabled the Ministry of Education to issue orders to universities and interfere in their operations, particularly regarding funding for higher education institutions.

Through strikes and various actions, the UTAG was able to force the government to respect academic freedom and to renounce the law.

This respect for academic freedom and basic human and trade union rights does not exist in East Africa, in countries like Sudan, Uganda and Cameroon, he added. In these countries, it is safer to be careful and not defy government views to avoid harassment and anger.

"With the COVID-19 pandemic, we are facing many teaching challenges in Ghana and throughout Africa," he said. "Without proper equipment, unstable power and internet connection, we cannot provide high quality education online."

Education International: International solidarity with scholars in Myanmar and Hong Kong

In her concluding remarks, Education International Assistant Secretary General Haldis Holst mentioned the "thought-provoking" research by Anna Hogan and Ben Williamson. Pandemic Privatization in Higher Education: Edtech & University Reform. "Both the enthusiastic response from students to the report and the university sector's assessment of the pandemic have shown that it is impossible to rely solely on edtech."

"We need to decide how to advance as educators to make sure edtech is led by our profession," she said.

She reminded attendees that defending academic freedom was high on the agenda of Education International and its affiliates as early as 2019 at Education International's Congress in Bangkok, Thailand, with two resolutions on higher education and academic freedom. Holst insisted that “In today's world, threats and violations have probably only increased. Part of the reason is the new threats related to online education, but another part can only be explained by the sad nature of oppressive regimes to take advantage of a crisis like COVID for their own benefit. "

Holst said that "the recent cases in Hong Kong and Myanmar show that repressive regimes do not miss the chance to accuse academics and teachers of" influencing "the minds of their students with liberal / progressive ideas." In Turkey, institutional nominations have been circumvented through direct appointments and / or dismissals directly from the president.

Holst adjourned the meeting calling for support for democracy in Myanmar and Hong Kong. In support, the participants switched on their cameras and held up three fingers – a sign of solidarity during the protests in Myanmar.

To access the full report: Pandemic Privatization in Higher Education: Edtech & University Reform, by Hogan, A. & Williamson, B. (2021) please click Here. You can find the summary here Here.

You can see the presentation of the report Here

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