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CAUT Bulletin Archives

January 1998

The History Behind the UNESCO Statement

The saga began 30 years ago when UNESCO adopted a recommendation on the status of teachers. This was designed to set out the rights and responsibilities of primary and secondary school teachers. At the time there were demands to expand this document to include higher education but this did not happen. Since then UNESCO has created documents on the rights of scientific workers and of artists, but despite considerable effort, nothing was done officially by UNESCO in regard to higher education teachers until the General Conference of 1993.

In the meantime a variety of bodies including the World University Service, the European rectors, and certain unions and professional bodies carried out studies and some adopted statements concerning academic freedom.

In the late 1980s, the International Conference of University Teachers' Organizations (ICUTO), of which CAUT is a founding member, took up the issue of a UNESCO recommendation or statement on higher education teaching personnel parallel to that on the status of primary and secondary school teachers. CAUT and the Syndicat National de l'enseignement supérieur in France took the lead. At the Ottawa meeting of ICUTO in 1989, the members agreed formally to support a UNESCO normative instrument. In 1991 CAUT commissioned Pat Finn, the business agent of the Carleton University Academic Staff Association, to produce a draft international instrument in proper legal language for discussion at the meeting of ICUTO in Washington in 1992 and adoption at the next meeting in Berlin in 1993. She used her sabbatical to interview UNESCO and ILO officials as well as the international teachers' unions. Not everyone was enthusiastic, but there was enough support in UNESCO to warrant proceeding with the project. This was in large part because another Canadian, Ramzi Salamé, former president of the faculty union at Université Laval, had done a feasibility study for UNESCO.

The General Conference of UNESCO in 1993 decided that there should be a UNESCO instrument and instructed the director general of UNESCO to produce a draft. The higher education division of UNESCO engaged Dr. Donald Savage, then executive director of CAUT, to produce this draft. He delivered a full instrument to the secretariat in September 1994. The key players in the UNESCO secretariat in this development were Marco Antonio R. Dias, director of the higher education division and Dimitri Beridize, head of the unit for academic mobility. Dr. Dias is the former vice-rector of the University of Brasilia.

The draft was extensively discussed between UNESCO and the ILO. The Recommendation on the Status of Teachers was a joint document of the two organizations. The one on higher education is solely the legal responsibility of UNESCO, but UNESCO could not deal effectively with such matters as terms and conditions of work without an agreement with the ILO.

The draft was also circulated to a variety of international organizations representing unions, management and others in higher education. All this produced a year of vigorous internal debate before a consensus was reached.

UNESCO then circulated the proposed statement to the 186 member states in preparation for a meeting of experts. Member states were invited to send written submissions. The meeting of experts was held in October 1996.

The recommendation was strongly opposed by Nigeria which argued against the reference to the civil rights of faculty, Saudi Arabia which wanted to entrench tradition, and South Korea which thought that the document was an assault on Asian values which better protected academics than European human rights. Other countries, particularly from Eastern Europe and South America, rejected the appeal to tradition.

A working party was struck which produced a compromise but which was faithful to the original document and it was ultimately adopted by the meeting.

That document was re-circulated to the member states for the 1997 General Conference. With a couple of minor amendments by Portugal, the document was adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO on Nov. 11, 1997. The UNESCO Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel now takes its place officially with other United Nations' documents which over the years have spelled out the rights of humanity.