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Values in higher education are under threat

Academic freedom is under threat in Western countries too, warns Robert Quinn from the organisation Scholars at Risk. On Tuesday 28 November, he led a workshop on values in higher education.

Robert Quinn foreleser om verdier i høyere utdanning (foto)

Human rights lawyer and director Robert Quinn presented five fundamental values for higher education institutions: academic freedom, institutional autonomy, social responsibility, accountability, and equitable access to higher education. (Photo: Amina Loukili Kristensen). 

The organisation Scholars at Risk is an international networking organisation based in New York. It has members from over 500 higher education institutions in 37 countries. Thousands of people work to protect threatened researchers and to promote academic freedom and human rights.

On Tuesday 28 November, a workshop was arranged at the University of Agder (UIA) for the purpose of reflecting on what Scholars at Risk has defined as the core values of higher education: academic freedom, institutional autonomy, social responsibility, accountability, and equitable access to higher education.

The workshop was part of the academic programme at UIA to mark the university’s 10-year anniversary. It was led by Robert Quinn, the human rights lawyer and director at Scholars at Risk.

A relatively strong position in Norway

The ideal concerning academic core values has a relatively strong position in Norway when compared to many other countries in the world. Several tendencies and trends are now nonetheless pressuring academic freedom: an increased emphasis placed on utility value, external funding, the discontinuation of collegiate bodies, and increasing time pressures on academic staff, management and students.

“If these values are weakened, not only will the quality of higher education also be weakened, but likewise the well-informed and critical social debate and confidence in research-based knowledge,” says Quinn.

He called upon the university management and participants at the seminar to put these values on the agenda. All staff should, for example, receive training in the university’s values when they start out in their careers at UIA. These will create a distinct framework and the right mechanisms to be able to react quickly and effectively when challenging events occur, believes Quinn.

Academic freedom

Society is nourished and strengthened by academic freedom, and therefore it must be respected and protected.

“There is every reason to strengthen the awareness of how important it is to defend the independence and significance of academics in a well-run democratic society,” says Quinn.

He believes that researchers must be able to follow their own ideas and give free expression to their academic standpoints. Free and independent universities shall direct a critical and vigilant gaze at social institutions and power structures. Through this critical gaze, universities and university colleges are to contribute to the quality of society’s institutions and management.

Examples from different countries

Quinn used several anonymised examples from countries such as Iran, the USA, Turkey and Malaysia in which academic freedom has been jeoparadized.

In Turkey, academics are constantly threatened and silenced. In 2016, 1128 Turkish and foreign academics stood behind a declaration criticising the Turkish authorities’ war against militant Kurds in PKK, Kurdistan’s Labour Party. The declaration called on an end to “massacres and slaughter” in South Eastern Anatolia, and challenged the Turkish authorities to enter into negotiations with PKK. Several of the academics behind the declaration lost their jobs and were accused of promoting terrorist propaganda.

“It is not always so easy to define the boundaries between academic freedom, freedom of expression and social responsibility. There are many grey areas which reflect the complexity of situations in which values in higher education are at stake,” says Quinn.

Countries with totalitarian or authoritarian regimes do not often have systems for the defence of academic freedom. But this freedom is also under considerable pressure in Western countries. In the US, a professor of Anthropology was recently dismissed after having expressed an opinion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on social media.

“Each one of us has the responsibility to defend the core values of universities and university colleges, and I encourage all institutions so seek dialogue with countries where these values are being silenced. Withdrawing from communications with totalitarian regimes is not always a good solution, and does not contribute to progress in difficult cases,” says Quinn.

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