21 January, 2022


Academic Freedom? In Defence Of A Radical Pursuit Of Truths

By Shamala Kumar

Dr. Shamala Kumar

Academic freedoms are vital to universities, but have been under attack for years. Galileo Galilei was tried and found guilty for challenging the prevailing view of the Earth as the centre of the universe. Galileo’s ideas were a threat to the all-powerful Catholic establishment. He was found guilty by the Roman Catholic Inquisition in 1633 and forced to recant. Yet today, it is his truth that prevails. Galileo is now recognised as the father of modern physics. Over the years, academic freedoms have been challenged on a number of fronts in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, making it difficult for university teachers to study and speak unpopular truths, particularly when they are unpalatable to the powers that be. Some of these challenges have come from State repression, others from public and institutional fears, and still others from the neoliberal transformation of universities.  

Academic freedom refers to both the freedom for those within universities to freely express their views without censure and for institutions to determine their scholarly activities. With respect to institutional academic freedom, the University Grants Commission has claimed progressively greater authority in academic matters impinging on those exercised by universities. Infringement of freedoms have been coupled to systematic defunding of education and higher education, which in turn have resulted in weakened universities that struggle to fulfil their mandate and withstand political interference. 

These dysfunctionalities have generated suspicion and antipathy towards universities, teachers and even students. They have resulted in the public questioning the purpose of universities calling for stricter regulation and more accountability, which in turn have affected academic freedoms. Challenges to academic freedom also comes from global forces, which have transformed the very conception of education from one that is pluralistic and organic to one that is standardized and sterilized. Individual and institutional academic freedoms have thereby been further attacked and restricted, creating a vicious cycle that has persisted in Sri Lankan higher education for decades. The crisis is likely to deepen in the near future.

We, as members of the university community, have been complicit in accepting the trends towards the erosion of academic freedom. Within universities, we have permitted the gradual weakening of institutional structures that uphold core principles of education, which include not only academic freedom, but also academic rigour, critical self-reflection and a commitment to free, progressive, and democratic education. We are been willing actors in the politicization of education, in the transformation of education from one that is for the people to one that fulfils the narrow interests of capitalist classes. And seemingly paradoxically (although not really), we have also intensely protected ourselves against public scrutiny and accountability, as we race in the pursuit of a questionable brand of ‘excellence’. 

The Present Political Context

In this scenario, what is the likely outcome of the decisive win of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP)? Recent actions by government actors suggest little commitment to democratic processes or progressive ideals. They espouse an the-ends-justify-the-means approach to tacking any problems they may face. The use of militarization and securitization as these ‘means’ and the determination to curb any form of resistance are already demonstrated. The public appear to be complacent in accepting such modes of action. They willing allow such encroachments of the military into civilian life, and subject themselves to vigilance mechanisms and similar tactics that would have been met with widespread resistance in the past. 

Within universities, we must realise that the SLPP’s strategy in higher education is very much a neoliberal project. National policy documents, initiatives, and the President’s speeches demonstrate a promotion of private education. The President in particular, fetishizes technology, and specifically technical education. He dismisses the social sciences and the humanities. Thus, education is narrowly defined and valued purely with financial ends in mind. This narrowing of the conceptions of education, however, has evolved over a number of years and cannot be blamed on a single individual. It is my belief that the development of such purely narrow monetary conceptions of education are why we have evolved into a society with such little public interest in democracy and justice, and hardly any concern over blatant religious intolerance, misogyny, and rabid nationalism. Such a transformation of education will ultimately be at the expense of the poor and the working class, who will be further oppressed as this education will not serve them make sense of their reality and become even less accessible. In fact, it will serve instead to pathologise their conditions and criminalise their attempt to address the conditions. 

The preference of the current government for centralisation suggests that its aspirations will be decided by a privileged few. Its tendencies towards authoritarianism means that these decisions will not be open for negotiation. Within universities we must brace ourselves to curtailed academic freedom, further defunding and shifts towards fee-levying and privatized higher education enforced through coercive tactics. Today’s political landscape does not bode well.

Addressing these challenges

Challenging these forces requires a radical transformation of our universities in a way that is true to purpose. It requires strength, conviction, and hope. It requires a truly radical struggle. Rights to free association, speech, and protest are closely tied to the freedoms that universities enjoy. If we are to continue to enjoy academic freedom, it is up to us to uphold these same freedoms within and without the university and to fully use our academic freedom to protest infringements of these rights of others. It is up to us to expect students to appreciate and use these freedoms. We must integrate them to all that we do at universities, while being reflective of our mandate to educate and nurture students to serve in a democratic and pluralistic society by ensuring that the university is also reflective of such a society.

We must clearly articulate what constitutes free education, and individual and institutional academic freedom and run universities according to such principles. We must broaden the conception of free education to develop universities as spaces of public engagement, through academic discussions, debates, workshops and courses that are designed to enrich society, rather than to make money. In recent years, with the focus on securitization, public access to universities have become difficult with some universities requiring administrative authorization to enter campus. We must also ensure that universities are provided with the resources required to run our programmes (right now we have no money for cleaning staff).

Considering the methods used so far by this government, the use of force involving military powers, vigilance, and threats to achieve its goals in higher education is likely. Such tactics of violence should be challenged because they are neither consistent with academic freedom nor with the nature and purpose of education. If, however, universities are unable to address violence within campuses, whether in terms of ragging or violence against women, minorities, students and junior staff members, our ability to challenge such forces is limited and will place us in a position where we cannot but accept it. We must ensure that forms of less obvious violence are also addressed, including violence within our curricula that may be oppressive to some or many of them. Such a process is deeply existential and calls for critical self-reflection by us in universities. When we do so, violence within universities will no longer be normalised or accepted. In anticipation of such possible actions by the Government, it is of paramount importance for the universities and academia to reflect on the violence in our environment and to take meaningful steps address it. 

And finally..

It is interesting to note that a similar process of intervention from above occurred in schools as well. The vision for schools in the 1940s was to create a highly accomplished body of teachers who would be able to develop curricula that would fit the needs of the local communities. However, with time, particularly from the 1970s, we saw greater centralization of education services accompanied by drastic cuts in funding and with the progressive introduction of national neoliberal policies emphasising standardization and privatization. These policies have left us with merely a shell of the emancipatory, socially uplifting, and economically transforming education that the policy was meant to create. An alternative vision of education would have been one in which we had developed a strong professional cadre of teachers to whom we could have entrusted our children’s education. 

While universities have been protected from such extensive infringements, the parallels are clear. The Ministry and the UGC have become more and more involved in higher education regulation, benchmarking, and quality assurance. These prototypical neoliberal reforms to education are coupled with defunding and promotion of private higher education; all of which are provided justification by attacking university education and endorsing narrowly defined conceptions of higher educational institutions as job training centres and factories of commercially viable research. Each successive government has not deviated substantially from this policy thrust. We must as the university community anticipate an acceleration in this direction and decide how we might respond to them, particularly addressing internal conditions that are likely to facilitate them. We must strengthen our commitment to truths and the rights of all peoples to pursue and speak them.

*Shamala Kumar teachers at the Faculty of Agriculture, University of Peradeniya, can be reached at skumar@agri.pdn.ac.lk

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Latest comments

  • 4

    Dr. Shamala Kumar
    Looks like you are trying to be other writers here by attributing failures of academics to the Government. First understand why we are here. I suggest you to read a number of articles published in Daily FT by a few experts on our Universities, Rankings and how they perform. You guys have utterly failed to deliver a quality service to public. That is why the Government had to appoint a Task force on education. Your bosses are part of that team. Rather than writing BS articles on militarisation, suppression etc. Contribute to that team with your suggestions. Learning is a birth right to people. Having availability to get private education if one can afford is a freedom the people should enjoy. You guys were sleepwalking and there was no competition, performance evaluation etc. Now the game is on. There will be more local universities. There will be branches of foreign universities. You cannot stop it. Just uplift your performance rather than complaining. Are your trying to say our universities are think tanks? No. They are just producing low quality graduates using rote education. Lift your game and show the results of the money already given to you.

  • 2

    Academic freedom means that academics should take responsibility. A few years back, there was a move to get the academics to sign an attendance register at least at the time of their arrival. There was vehement opposition saying that it violates academic freedom and most protests came from academics who never visit the faculties. I friend of mine told me once that if you want to have a staff meeting it should be held on the pay day because all academics are present on that day. Those academics who regularly come to work did not protest this move. Those academics who work in private tutories even during working hours, particularly from the Arts based faculties, go scot free and collect all their allowances.
    Also, when the govt. approved payment of the research allowance those good for nothing academics again twisted the arm of FUTA to allow all to get a research allowance by submitting some research proposal. Most of the time these were bogus and useless but the universities have no way to stop this since the majority are useless and nobody ever asked the progress of these bogus reports later.
    So much for academic freedom!

  • 3

    The concept of Outcome-Based Education itself is not conducive to liberal thinking.
    The Course Unit System and Continuous Assessment Schemes that we have were imposed on all universities without serious study of feasibility and resources. Even now I am aware of faculties that have, wisely, defied/or delayed implementing the order to change.
    The academics are no more in a position to decide the aims and objectives of education.
    Protests about increasing the number of admissions without matching the resources have fallen on deaf ears. (More admissions means more votes, and who can go against that logic?)
    Today higher education is a commercial venture and private “traders in education” are encroaching from all directions.
    The state must have a plan for the kind and number of graduates needed. Governments haven’t a clue. They look up to foreign experts to guide us.
    The academics have to put their house in order.
    Academic plagiarism, publishing in predatory journals and multiple claims for the same work are common. The UGC after much pressure from concerned academics (some academics of the University of Jaffna made a commendable service in that respect) took steps to discourage these trends.
    What did the UTA do to help? It was playing the role of a trade union defending the interests of ‘vulnerable’ members seeking promotion by foul means.

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