What is academic freedom?

Note: I originally wrote two versions of this article for The Wire; one, a ‘newsier’ version, was published in June 2020. I’d intended to publish the version below, which is more of a discussion/analysis, sometime last year itself but it slipped my mind. I’m publishing it today, shortly after rediscovering it by accident.

Since the Cold War, science has been a reason of state, as the social theorist Ashis Nandy has argued. So when scientists, or academicians in general, seek to assert themselves, their actions are a threat to the state itself and its stewards.

This is no different in India – but it’s particularly relevant because not just science but also pseudoscience has been adapted as a reason of state, amplifying scholars’ vaguely moral imperative to rebut the state’s claims to a nearly existential one. And in parallel, the perception of academic freedom has evolved from a human right to a more-enforceable fundamental one, if only to check a political class that no longer sees reason and democracy as boundary conditions.

“If deliberation is central to democracy, then it is not enough to to simply have a negative right to free speech. A democratic society should also cultivate forums where open deliberation takes place,” Tarun Menon, of the National Institute for Advanced Studies, Bengaluru, said.

“Universities have traditionally been such forums, often involving young people who are seriously engaging with the public sphere for the first time in their lives, developing their civic identities. Maintaining academic freedom – understood as an atmosphere free of intimidation or intellectual control – is essential to preserving these spaces as hubs of participatory democracy.”

Researchers at the Global Public Policy Institute, the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg (FAU), the Scholars At Risk Network and the V-Dem Project at the University of Gothenburg have prepared a new report that offers a way to quantify this freedom. They have developed an ‘academic freedom index’ (AFI), which determines, with a few parameters, the relative extent to which different countries value academic freedom.

To quote from The Wire‘s news report,

India has an AFI of 0.352, comparable to the scores of Saudi Arabia and Libya. Countries that scored higher than India include Pakistan (0.554), Brazil (0.466), Ukraine (0.422), Somalia (0.436) and Malaysia (0.582). Uruguay and Portugal top the list with scores of 0.971 each, followed closely by Latvia and Germany. At the bottom are North Korea (0.011), Eritrea (0.015), Bahrain (0.039) and Iran (0.116).

The AFI has eight components, defined by the following questions:

  1. “To what extent are scholars free to develop and pursue their own research and teaching agendas without interference?”
  2. “To what extent are scholars free to exchange and communicate research ideas and findings?”
  3. “To what extent do universities exercise institutional autonomy in practice?”
  4. “To what extent are campuses free from politically motivated surveillance or security infringements?”
  5. “Is there academic freedom and freedom of cultural expression related to political issues?”
  6. “Do constitutional provisions for the protection of academic freedom exist?”
  7. “Is the state party to the ICESCR without reservations to Article 15 (right to science)?”
  8. “Have universities (ever) existed in this country?”

According to the report, some 1,810 academicians responded to the first five questions, for each of their countries. (For a closer look at the methods, please read The Wire‘s news report.)

On this count, the report’s authors themselves advise caution: “While there is evidence of a deteriorating condition for academics in [India], the extent of the AFI score’s decline seems somewhat disproportional in comparison to earlier periods in the [country’s] history as well as in comparison to other countries over the same period.” It’s likely this caveat extends to all countries.

Our impression of universities as simply centres of learning has divorced them from their status as places where students can investigate ideas without fear. So an entity like AFI is notable because it reminds us of the need for universities to be free as well as active participants in realising the ‘right to science’, as embodied in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

After it came into force from January 1976 – with India ratifying it in April 1979 – the covenant, among other things, entitles the people of its party states “to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications” and requires the states “to respect the freedom indispensable for scientific research and creative activity”.

So the AFI’s makers suggest the UN could read the indicator with self-assessment reports the parties submit. They also suggest other ways their findings could prove useful – but the report doesn’t escape the fate all indices share: the farther it ventures from its status as an index, the less useful it becomes.

Among academicians, conventionally underprivileged groups – such as women and transgender people – as well as underprivileged areas of study like women’s studies, could use the AFI as a way to strengthen protections for themselves.

A post published on the Times Higher Education blog in 2019 read, “Scholars of feminism attract an overwhelming amount of intimidation; their right to explore controversial issues demands explicit protection.”

However, one of the AFI’s constituent questions – “To what extent are scholars free to exchange and communicate research ideas and findings?” – treats scholars as one monolithic unit. What happens when scholars themselves oppose each other’s right to study certain subjects? Such a contention may not always fit within the bounds of academic debate either, and could even compromise another question: “Is there academic freedom and freedom of cultural expression related to political issues?”

For example, academicians in the UK have been embroiled in a fierce debate over the freedom to critique transgender rights. One group has accused the other of adopting “a ‘censorious’ approach to gender identity”. The other has accused the first of transphobia. However, “universities are negotiating a minefield, trying to maintain free speech while faced with two groups of people who both argue they are being made to feel unsafe,” Anna Fazackerley wrote for The Guardian in January 2020.

But without a close reading of the ‘codebook’ accompanying the report, which explains the questions the academicians answered, the UK’s AFI of 0.934 doesn’t immediately suggest that external interference isn’t the only kind of problem.

More broadly, Madhusudhan Raman, a postdoctoral fellow at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, said he is “suspicious” of attempts “to reduce what is a complex, often fluid, social-political consensus to a number between 0 and 1.” For one, such ‘metrics’ “don’t shed light on how societies arrive at their respective consensuses.”

And even more broadly, the report’s data isn’t grainy enough to examine the type of academic freedom available at a university. Menon, for example, identified two ways to justify that freedom of expression is not inherently valuable but for a purpose: for deliberative democracy – described earlier – and for the marketplace of ideas.

And “a free marketplace of ideas, where that freedom is interpreted exclusively as freedom from government intervention, will tend to produce knowledge that is valuable to powerful monied interests, not democratic interests more broadly construed”.

This is more so when so few Indians study at universities, and even fewer among them are not of the upper castes.

“Academic freedom is crucial but we need to talk about specific factors like caste,” an anthropologist at the University of Delhi, who didn’t wish to be named, said. “Another thing that destroyed academic freedom is the artificial binary of teaching and research encouraged by various governments, including the current one. Many Indian universities and colleges are still feudal and patriarchal. We also need to talk about the institutional cultures and the way in which it restricts academic freedom through the contractualisation of appointments.”

In addition, middle-class parents could even use an index like the AFI to identify places where their children could study without being ‘distracted’ by political activities.

Katrin Kinzelbach, a professor of political science at FAU, who conceived the AFI and helped prepare the report, pointed to the codebook, which explains how the results were arrived at, and thus how they could and couldn’t be interpreted.

“In these clarifications, we state clearly that interference by ‘non-academic actors’ includes not only interference by government representatives and politicians but also businesses, foundations, other private funders as well as religious groups and advocacy groups,” she told The Wire. “As a matter of fact, we consciously avoided an exclusive focus on government interference.”

In India, a strong politics-business-media nexus has allowed the government to exert its will through a combination of social, financial, legal and even religious instruments. Together with the fact that the state has also become the chief ‘intervener’ in student affairs – from censoring conversations on some topics to turning a blind eye to violence against students backed by politico-religious powers – it’s hard to separate each intervention from another when all of them seem to have the same outcome: to reduce the university to a collection of classrooms by eroding the culture of debate that the state perceives as a threat to itself.

So, Menon said, “genuinely democratic academic freedom” should also consider “inclusivity of education, resistance to privatisation of education and funding, resistance to the vocationalisation of education.”

But without these considerations, the report’s “priorities … are in line with the neoliberal consensus according to which academic freedom essentially just means laissez-faire applied to the academic realm just as it is to the economic realm.”

Kinzelbach contested this conclusion: she “echoed” Menon’s thoughts on the lack of inclusivity and the perils of privatised education but, she continued, “I would argue that [inclusivity] would be more appropriately studied under a ‘right to education’ framework, not under the notion of ‘academic freedom’.”

She added that had her team “included the funding structure of universities as an indicator of academic freedom, it would not be possible to study these hypothesised causal relationships, and that would make the data much less useful for further research.”