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CAUT Bulletin Archives

January 1999

UNESCO Declaration Puts Academic Freedom at Risk

Powerful international forces seek to replace hard-won definition of academic freedom.

Undermining academic freedom is consistent with the World Bank's proclaimed Reform Agenda which CAUT President Bill Graham first reported on in his coverage of the World Conference on Higher Education held at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, October 5 to 9, 1998. Dr. Graham informed us then that the World Bank agenda is an outright attack on academic freedom, tenure, collegial governance, curricular control by faculty, and faculty organization and unionism. The World Bank proposes radically altering who faculty are, how they behave, the way they are organized, and the way they work and are compensated. Now, as we discover in this report new challenges surfaced at the conference which threaten to undermine the strong statements on academic freedom which were adopted in November 1997 by the UNESCO General Assembly in its "Recommendation Concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel."

A group led by the International Association of Universities wants to weaken those statements because it believes faculty members are too liberal in viewing academic freedom as a right of free expression rather than as a duty "to uphold the balance" between "the spiraling demand for higher education on the one hand, and the globalization of economic, financial and technical change on the other."

A statement produced by the IAU had been received by CAUT in advance of the conference, and CAUT's critical response was sent to the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada in September.

The 1997 UNESCO Recommendation defined academic freedom as "the right, without constriction by prescribed doctrine, to freedom of teaching and discussions, freedom in carrying out research and disseminating and publishing the results thereof, freedom to express freely their opinion about the institution or system in which they work, freedom from institutional censorship and freedom to participate in professional or representative academic bodies."

In contrast, the World Declaration, adopted in Paris last October states that faculty members and their institutions should enjoy "academic freedom and autonomy conceived as a set of rights and duties, while being fully responsible and accountable to society."

All our attempts to get this statement amended at the world conference were rebuffed, but we did succeed in adding to the section of the document in which it appears the words, "in accordance with the Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel."

The motive for refusing to further define academic freedom in the only two documents passed by the world conference, the world declaration and the framework for action, became clear during the thematic debate on academic freedom, university autonomy and social responsibility which was prepared and sponsored by the International Association of Universities based at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris.

The IAU position was presented at the thematic debate by the person chairing, Dr. Justin Thorens, former Rector of the University of Geneva, and Honorary President of the IAU. Dr. Thorens contended that many academics confuse academic freedom with conditions of employment and wrongly emphasize academic freedom as the right of free expression of opinions. This could lead, he said, to a chemistry professor thinking he could give lectures on law. In reality, he continued, academic freedom is given to universities by the state, and it is given as a duty, not a right; as a responsibility to carry out a function for which individual academics should not be sanctioned.

Thorens went on to argue that what is needed is "a new international instrument" on academic freedom to "reexamine" the issue which had been addressed by the UNESCO General Assembly in its recommendation. He asked if that was the sense of those assembled, and received applause from some of the hundreds of delegates who attended the debate. Without allowing for dissent he took the matter as settled. He then unilaterally proclaimed that a small working group would be set up to draft the new "international instrument" on academic freedom, university autonomy and social responsibility. This initiative has now been made a priority for action and was adopted in the world conference Framework for Action.

CAUT led the critical attack on the IAU statement on academic freedom, but it was generously and vigorously supported by our sister associations from Quebec, the United States, England, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Germany, and Poland. We also had the enthusiastic support of Education International, of which CAUT is now a member.

Although we were successful in getting the words "in accordance with the Recommendation concerning Higher-Education Teaching Personnel" added to the call for the new international instrument, the problem remains. There are powerful international forces, including the IAU and the World Bank, which want to weaken and undermine the protections of academic freedom set out in the UNESCO recommendation. Because that recommendation was adopted by the General Assembly in 1997, however, the strategy to undermine the protections of academic freedom will most effectively take the form of introducing yet another definition of academic freedom so as to create ambiguity, division and confusion within UNESCO and the world higher education community.

CAUT's intervention at the thematic debate included the following criticisms of the IAU position paper:

That the IAU Statement,

  1. Offers a different definition of academic freedom from the recommendation, and it is divisive for UNESCO to have two inconsistent definitions;
  2. Emphasizes research over teaching;
  3. Fails to mention the right to "express freely their opinion about the institution or system in which they work";
  4. Fails to mention the right and freedom "to participate in professional or representative academic bodies";
  5. Makes only vague references to civil and political rights of faculty members such as are specified in the recommendation;
  6. Fails to stress the necessity of shared and collegial governance;
  7. Allows national and local governments to participate in setting norms for university work and working conditions, thus limiting the scope of academic freedom;
  8. Restricts academic freedom and autonomy to universities, excluding other institutions of higher education as supported by the recommendation;
  9. Does not tie academic freedom closely enough to autonomy to ensure that autonomy is not interpreted so as to limit academic freedom or to prevent serious academic inquiries into the operations of particular institutions or systems.

The Recommendation Concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel was the culmination of years of work by CAUT's former Executive Director, Don Savage. For background, see Bulletin, November & January 1998.