Academic freedom in a time of globalisation

Academic freedom in a time of globalisation

International higher education plays an unprecedented role in the globalising world. The rapid development of globalisation gives international higher education a valuable mission. Educators have to foster global, multi-cultural citizens who can participate in social issues that require critical thinking. However, a barrier has emerged: breaches of academic freedom.

It is not a new phenomenon, yet academic freedom becomes more untenable in the current complex social situations, extensive educational activities and enormous diversity in this modern world. Multiple approaches are required to address these challenges to academic freedom.

Academic democracy

International higher education can produce valuable and honest outcomes only if educational activities are carried out in a free and open academic atmosphere. Political influence is one of the most destructive forces acting upon academic freedom, and unfortunately, dictatorship-centred political structures still exist. Within societies dominated by dictatorships, academic freedom is oppressed. People cannot fully research, express, or discuss their discoveries, especially in the areas of history, politics and education. Academia is controlled to serve the political purposes and the social ideology of those in power. Advanced knowledge and essential information are constrained in influencing people’s ideas, thoughts and values. Without the participation of the population in those societies, globalisation would not be possible.

Throughout history, academic freedom never came freely. People who were devoted to honest exploration of knowledge and discovery of truth sacrificed as much as they benefited future generations. Today, people are still struggling, fighting, and calling for academic freedom. It becomes a big challenge for international higher education to comprehensively integrate education and academic freedom within those societies. Freedom is not free; however, with a stronger voice and more actions in international higher education, academic freedom will flow to every corner of the world, allowing more people to freely express, share and debate their individual values, ideals and positions, motivating people to create a community and participate in community governance. Academic freedom is necessary to provoke fundamental democracy in the world.

Academic purity

In advantaged societies, academic freedom promises strong academic achievement; nevertheless, it is somewhat degraded by the consistent pressure to secure funding and publications. Most funding bodies are corporations and organisations that hold certain norms. They provide financial support to those who can work toward their philosophy; applicants have to more or less compromise their academic standards in order to accommodate those norms. Most funding bodies have research categories. Applicants with non-categorisable research topics have to alter their research focus to the interest of funding providers; some funding bodies require research to find evidence to prove already sought for results for academic or commercial purposes; some funding bodies look for people to provide preferred analysis to promote blind enforcement of governance and discourage critical thinking. To a certain extent, funding becomes the client and academia becomes the employee. Under these circumstances, many wonderful topics are restricted in reflecting the facts and producing valuable outcomes; what’s worse, some biased research can even damage and mislead education practice.

Competition in publishing is not merely to share research findings, but to secure academic positions. Publication is an important qualification for professorship, funding, and authority. Alarmingly, when publishing becomes the purpose of academia, it becomes a barrier to academic freedom. When professors reduce time in the classroom and shun participation in the academic community by shifting attention and efforts to publications, the pedagogical and research responsibilities lose balance in education; then, there is not much room for academic freedom.

Academic freedom is abused when people in academia play safe, not taking any risks, accommodating to the academic ‘standard’ and ‘norm’, in order to secure ‘success’. How much freedom is still there in higher education if the motivation is not towards pure intellectual curiosity but toward external benefits, and people do not do what they are trained to do but do what they are paid to do? The value of academia is to pursue knowledge and seek out truths without fear or limitation, and higher education should speak for this and live up to it. The agenda of academia should be the advancement of knowledge, and nothing else.

Cultural tolerance and shared communication

A significant characteristic of international higher education is the sharing and exchange of knowledge, information and ideas; however, more advantaged societies exert a dominant influence over less advantaged societies. This phenomenon creates unequal positions and imbalanced communication.

Preparing people to be global citizens is a key function of international higher education. Academic freedom makes it possible to share different cultures and values, communicate different opinions and ideas, but it also requires an open and tolerant mind to fully practice freedom and secure its position. A sense of cultural superiority will bring forth cultural intolerance, and furthermore, cultural discrimination, which will mislead teaching and learning, produce superficial cooperation, and create conflict. International higher education could even become mis-educational and harmful when academic freedom is distorted. We cannot allow and we cannot afford cultural intolerance for which human societies already paid an appalling price.

Academic leadership

Nowadays, academic leadership is required beyond the traditional role of administration – it has a new duty to lead the institutions and educational activities toward this new vision of globalisation. Leadership in international higher education in particular plays an essential role in implementing academic freedom and guarding it from fraud. Leaders have to possess a profound knowledge and experience of international higher education, a thorough and clear idea of the purposes, goals, contents and scope.

Young people from all over the world are enthusiastic to seek knowledge and truth; they have the right to know, and educators have the obligation to help and guide them. Professors are to profess, to debate arguments, to state claims, to freely teach and exchange with students. Teaching and learning should not be constrained by any non-academic powers, even controversial issues should be put on the academic table to be discussed and debated. It needs passion and wisdom for leaders to create a free academic atmosphere for curriculum design, faculty speeches and student participation, while keeping the balance between institutional disciplines, teaching ethics, and academic freedom.

It is a blessing as well as a challenge to be a leader in international higher education. Brave, wise and innovative leaders are in urgent demand on the front line to respect the real value of academia, to protect freedom from being manipulated by non-academic influences, and most importantly to integrate academic freedom in international higher education within the global background.

It is a crucial moment to fundamentally promote academic freedom to serve international education; however, it requires a thorough understanding of academic freedom from multiple angles to act upon it in an intercultural dimension. The ultimate goal is to motivate international higher education to use its power to build a more just world.

By Elizabeth Liu, McGill University, Canada