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CAUT Bulletin Archives

January 1998

International Statement Adopted by UNESCO

The Rights & Responsibilities of Academics
In November, the governing body of UNESCO, meeting in Paris, adopted an international statement on the rights and responsibilities of higher education teaching personnel. This was the culmination of a long campaign by CAUT and other national federations of academic staff to secure an international standard dealing with academic freedom as well as the civil, economic and other rights of faculty and to spell out the responsibilities that went with these rights. The statement also sets out a standard for the autonomy of higher education including institutional rights, duties and responsibilities.

CAUT took up this cause in the first instance so that there would be a standard for judging those dictatorial and authoritarian governments which restrict academic freedom and abuse their academic staff through imprison-ment and other cruel and inhuman practices. "However," said Dr. Bill Bruneau, President of CAUT, "the document has a very long reach and deals with matters of the highest importance for the academic community throughout the world including Canada."

Canada's Council of Ministers of Education (CMEC) strongly supported the UNESCO statement. The CMEC represents Canada in the educational debates at UNESCO. The Hon. Robert Harrison, the Minister of Education in Nova Scotia, was the leader of the Canadian delegation in this forum and spoke vigorously in favour of the statement. "This issue," he said, "has been before UNESCO for thirty years in one form or another. Canada thinks it is time to adopt the recommendation at this General Conference." The Canadian Commission for UNESCO, headed by Michel Agnaieff, was a key player in the creation of a Canadian position, and the Canadian Ambassador to UNESCO, Jacques Demers, gave his full support. This represented a remarkable convergence of the CMEC, the federal government and the university community.

Many of the member states of UNESCO spoke at the General Conference in favour of the statement. One of the more eloquent speeches was that of the Vatican whose representative said that it nicely balanced rights and responsibilities. No state voted against the statement, and only four expressed reservations about the chapter on terms and conditions of employment.

The section of the document on rights and freedoms states "access to the higher education academic profession should be based solely on appropriate academic qualifications, competence and experience, equal for all members of society without discrimination. Higher-education teaching personnel like all other groups and individuals should enjoy those internationally recognized civil, political, social and cultural rights applicable to all citizens," including freedom of thought, conscience, religion, expression, assembly and association as well as the right to liberty and security of the person and liberty of movement. Academic staff should not suffer penalties through freely expressing their opinion of state policies or policies affecting higher education.

The statement then defines the principle of academic freedom which, it says, should be scrupulously observed. Academic freedom guarantees the right to teach freely according to accepted principles of professional responsibility and intellectual rigour as well as the freedom to carry out and disseminate the results of research. It also includes the freedom to criticize one's own institution as well as the education system without fear of reprisal and the freedom to participate in professional or representative academic bodies.

In addition, "Higher-education teaching personnel should have the right and opportunity, without discrimination of any kind, according to their abilities, to take part in the governing bodies of higher education institutions and to criticize the functioning of higher education institutions, including their own, while respecting the right of other sections of the academic community to participate ..."

The statement then links academic freedom and collegiality: "Collegial decision-making should encompass decisions regarding administration and determination of policies of higher education, curriculum, research, extension work, allocation of resources and other related activities, in order to improve academic excellence and quality for the benefit of society at large." In another section, the document states that "self-governance, collegiality and appropriate academic leadership are essential components of meaningful autonomy for institutions of higher education."

The section on the rights of individuals is balanced by one on their responsibilities. These cover a wide range including fairness, research ethics, conflict of interest and public accountability. Accountability should involve academics "... without, however, forfeiting the degree of institutional autonomy necessary for their work, their professional freedom and for the advancement of knowledge."

The UNESCO statement stresses the importance of autonomy. "Autonomy," it says, "is the institutional form of academic freedom...." Member states should protect their universities and colleges from attacks on their autonomy. However, it also states that autonomy should not be used as a pretext or a vehicle to limit the individual rights of higher education teaching personnel.

Institutional autonomy must also be balanced by institutional accountability. Higher education institutions should be accountable on a wide range of issues including a commitment to quality and excellence, the ensuring of fairness, effective support of academic freedom and fundamental human rights, provision of up-to-date libraries, and honest and open accounting.

"Systems of institutional accountability," UNESCO states, "should be based on a scientific methodology and be clear, realistic, cost-effective and simple. In their operation, they should be fair, just and equitable. Both the methodology and the results should be open."

Furthermore, institutions themselves or as a group should design and implement appropriate systems of accountability. Faculty associations should participate in such planning. State systems of accountability should be negotiated both with the institutions and the organizations representing higher education teaching personnel.

The UNESCO statement also contains an extensive chapter on terms and conditions of employment. A series of conventions of the International Labour Organization are included by reference such as the various ILO conventions and recommendations on freedom of association, the right to organize and the right to engage in collective bargaining as well as the ILO documents on pensions and on health and safety. So too are earlier UNESCO conventions and declarations on discrimination, racial prejudice, technical and vocational education, and the rights of scientific researchers as well as the major human rights documents of the United Nations itself. The statement calls for effective transferability of pensions both nationally and internationally. It suggests that benefits should be prorated for part-time academics.

This section calls for terms and conditions of employment that will be the most conducive for effective teaching, research and scholarship, and that will be fair and free from discrimination. It calls for fair procedures for appointment, promotion, tenure, dismissal and related matters.

It states that tenure or its functional equivalent "constitutes one of the major procedural safeguards of academic freedom and against arbitrary decisions ... it also encourages individual responsibility and the retention of talented higher-education teaching personnel." It notes that academic staff can be dismissed for just and sufficient cause related to professional conduct. It permits layoffs for bona fide financial reasons "... provided that the financial accounts are open to public inspection, that the institution has taken all reasonable alternative steps to prevent termination of employment, and that there are legal safeguards against bias...." This wording was suggested by the Council of Ministers of Education (Canada). Tenure, the document says, should be safeguarded even when changes within an institution or the system as a whole are made.

The statement suggests a significant role for organizations which represent higher education teaching personnel. Such organizations, it says, "should be considered and recognized as a force which can contribute greatly to educational advancement and which should, therefore, be involved, together with other stakeholders and interested parties, in the determination of higher education policy." They should also have the right to organize freely under labour legislation,

to negotiate terms and conditions of employment and to participate in a fair and just system of labour relations.

"The adoption of this statement is a great triumph," said Dr. Bruneau. "It represents a vision for the world of how things ought to be in higher education. We must strive to ensure that the world's governments and universities live up to these ideals."

This month's UNESCO feature was provided by Donald C. Savage, former executive director of CAUT and Pat Finn, business agent of the Carleton University Academic Staff Association.