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Academic freedom “increasingly under threat”

New guidance on academic freedom took centre stage at a recent event hosted by the UN Human Rights Council and Scholars at Risk, as stakeholders warned that it is increasingly under threat worldwide.

Attacks on academic freedom, impacting both students and academics, includes violence and wrongful imprisonment. Photo: pexels

The organisation identified 391 distinct attacks on higher education in the year ending September 1, 2022

At the event in early July, the latest from the Principles for Implementing the Right of Academic Freedom, which has been developed by an international working group, was detailed.

“Academic freedom is essential for any healthy democratic society,” said Eamon Gilmore, European Union Special Representative for Human Rights. “Without it, critical thinking cannot be cultivated and critical thinking is key to freedom, prosperity, progress and innovation.

“People need to be able to share and access information in order to develop new ideas and the freedom to research, teacher, debate and disseminate is central to the advancement of knowledge.

“Academic freedom is also key to holding authorities and governments to account,” Gilmore added.

However, he warned that it “continues to decline across the world”.

“Reports of threats and attacks against the academic community are steadily increasing. Higher education institutions are also confronted with disinformation and information manipulation attempts. We need to work more closely together to stop this disturbing trend.”

SAR senior advocacy officer, Jesse Levine, referred to the academic freedom index when he shared that more than half the world’s population – four billion people – lives in states where academic freedom has been in decline for the last 10 years.

“Reports of threats and attacks against the academic community are steadily increasing”

The organisation identified 391 distinct attacks on higher education in the year ending September 1, 2022.

“That is the largest number of attacks we have ever tracked,” he added. Attacks include violence and wrongful imprisonment, institutional takeover by state authorities and the allies and increased restrictions on student protest.

“The world has yet to recognise that academic freedom is as important to a free society as an independent judiciary, strong civil society or a free press,” he said.

Earlier this year, a Joint Statement on Academic Freedom signed by 74 countries was delivered.

SAR added that there had been progress on support for academic freedom in recent years, reflected in the UN special rapporteur’s 2020 report on academic freedom and UNESCO’s parallel advancement of the conversation on science and scientific freedom.

Farida Shaheed, UN special rapporteur for the Right to Education, stated that “if we believe in democratic spaces, then that space for thinking differently – even if we don’t like that opinion – must be there in terms of education”.

“Without academic freedom societies lose not just an essential element of democratic self governance, but the capacity for self reflection, for knowledge generation and for a constant search for improvement of peoples’ lives and social conditions. Surely, this is exactly what the purpose of education should be,” Shaheed added.

“Making academic freedom a practical, on the ground reality, it must be a central part of our understanding of what is required for social and scientific progress and democratic advancement and the realisation of the sustainable development goals,” Levine added.

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