fbpx


How Academic Freedom Can Be Enriched in Arab Universities

/ 28 May 2021

How Academic Freedom Can Be Enriched in Arab Universities

Editor’s note: This commentary is part of a package on the prevalence and consequences of academic self-censorship in Arab higher education, based on a survey conducted by Al-Fanar Media and the Scholars at Risk network. See other articles and commentaries in the package at this link.

Academic freedom has a great significance in promoting the scientific research movement and its development, however, it appears to be only a recent issue in Arab culture. Academic freedom is rarely discussed outside the communities interested in education philosophy, yet it is a societal issue whose effects go beyond the walls of the university and extend to the public areas.

Due to the new reality of universities in Tunisia and in the Arab world, this issue is doubly important since a new generation of academics who are no longer interested in research has been produced in recent years, and the university itself has become at best a source of livelihood, or obtaining a pension that helps meet daily needs. Most professors’ aspirations are limited to conducting and to publishing traditional research for the sole purpose of professional advancement.

While the situation is such, it is no longer weird for the Arab academic to stay away from the concerns and ideas that occupy other academic communities around the world. Chief among these is the issue of academic freedom, an idea that has deep roots in the West. The American Association of University Professors first published its Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure in 1940, but the organization’s discussions on the subject go back decades before that date. And centuries earlier, Leiden University, in the Netherlands, was established in 1575 on principles that laid a foundation for establishing the traditional scientific research method.

In our Arab world, however, the matter of academic freedom has not been a subject of concern except in light of the eruption of crises related to the freedom of scientific research or the independence of universities.

Arab academic practices have been distorted accordingly, historically as well as cognitively, to a limited understanding of the university teaching process. It is also seen as a profession similar to all other professions and thus subject to the rule of work accomplished.

Fear of Seeking the Truth

Under these conditions, university professors have learned to ask themselves a fundamental question: Does the professor’s relationship with the lesson content and students represent a faithful translation of government policies that choose the curricula for higher education and define its aims and mechanisms? Governments are the sources of universities’ budgets, which enables them to tighten their grip on academic policies and remove all issues that they consider as a threat to their existence.

It is sufficient to think how Arab governments have dealt, before the Arab Spring protests, with everything that was raised in the classroom regarding issues such democracy and human rights, or freedom of thought and the status of religion, and other issues that remained for decades within the framework of prohibitions within our Arab universities.

It is sufficient to think how Arab governments have dealt, before the Arab Spring protests, with everything that was raised in the classroom regarding issues such democracy and human rights, or freedom of thought and the status of religion, and other issues that remained for decades within the framework of prohibitions within our Arab universities.

Tackling such freedoms necessarily entails addressing the limits of control over them by those in authority, and then delving into the mechanisms of approving curricula and educational units themselves. In the Tunisian education system, for example, such units are subject to government options represented by the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. Therefore, the freedom to set curricula does not exceed a predetermined ceiling, within the framework of a legislative code launched from the 2014 constitution. However, the education system has assigned the governmental academic bodies the task of forming committees to shape and to approve different educational pathways. Thus, educators appear to retain academic freedom over the nature of academic production, while at a deeper level it remains under institutional control.

[Enjoying this article? Subscribe to our free newsletter.]

We do not need details about the nature of the general Arab climate, where forms of societal control are increasing in a way that undermines all academic freedom. For more than half a century, we have witnessed in the Arab world a series of physical and moral attacks on thinkers, creators and academics whose work was deemed “an attack on the sacred areas.”

Our societies are still witnessing legal prosecutions against professors and thinkers who respond to preconceived accusations that belong to the Inquisition, in contrast to the campaigns of atonement that extend to anyone who thinks outside the box under the pretext of academic freedom.

A Chaos That Destroys Freedom

Despite all these negative indications, there are those among us who believe that the reality of universities today has changed to the point that we have turned into the “overdose” area under the name of academic freedom. In some situations, because of misusing such freedoms, we are forced to blow up all the controls and justify professional transgressions or deficiencies in scientific capabilities, so that the slogan of “academic freedom” turns from a weapon that supports freedom of research into a chaos that destroys the real freedom.

The conclusion, therefore, is that anyone who thinks of the relationship between academic freedom and Arab cultural policies knows that such policies are based on the principle of teaching the lessons and educational attainment, which realizes that they are the product of the Arab mentality that draws from a transfer approach in the collection of knowledge, based on the “traditions” principle.

The conclusion, therefore, is that anyone who thinks of the relationship between academic freedom and Arab cultural policies knows that such policies are based on the principle of teaching the lessons and educational attainment, which realizes that they are the product of the Arab mentality that draws from a transfer approach in the collection of knowledge, based on the “traditions” principle. Every student, accordingly, sits in front of a sheikh who preceded him to reduce wisdom, without critical examination, and over the centuries a public culture was established based on hostility toward all free thinking and built on the atonement of the violator of the Sultan’s decrees and rose to the burning of the books of these violators.

Therefore, getting out of the restrictions on the transmission of knowledge that are hostile to freedom of thought necessitates the work to establish a counter-culture of enlightenment that allows the liberation of the mind away from taboos. It is also concerned with establishing the right to disagree and freedom of opinion. The Arab academic mind accordingly can establish a new system that allows free exchange of ideas and positions, regardless of the degree to which they conflict with the collective opinion, so that the academic community becomes its own master and not an obedient servant of those who pay them.

This article is intended to be a contribution with others to establishing an international consensus on academic freedom. Thus, I propose  a set of recommendations that are the result of long research experience, including the management and administration of one of the governmental institutions of Tunisia.

My first recommendation is to stop legal prosecution against any university professor who plays his role within the framework of his responsibilities and commitment to professional conscience, which is guaranteed by international conventions, including those on human rights.

I also call for excluding universities from ideological, racial and ethnic conflicts and making the quality of teaching a supreme goal. This includes not binding the curricula with justifications that only serve their owners and undermine any creative academic effort.

Further, I call for the launching of an international solidarity campaign against all forms of physical and verbal violence and legislation that undermine the academic freedom of students and professors, while ensuring the establishment of a fair international academic system, which is not based on providing opportunities for university students from the richest countries at the expense of marginalizing the academics of poorer countries. The university accordingly will have the ability to benefit from self-amendment in the area of academic freedom so that it is in a middle position without excess or negligence.

Mohamed Saad Borghol is the dean and a professor at the Higher Institute of Applied Languages of Moknine, of the University of Monastir. Phd in Arabic studies Author, journalist, columnist, social activist.




No CommentsJoin the Conversation

What Others are Readingالأكثر قراءة

Copyright © 2018 Al-Fanar Mediaحقوق © 2018 الفنار للإعلام

arabic

Copyright © 2018 Al-Fanar Mediaحقوق © 2018 الفنار للإعلام