Last week’s news that University College Dublin (UCD) has abandoned plans to amend its policy on academic freedom came at a timely moment.
While the world’s eyes are largely fixed on one point right now, many experts are urging caution about some of the potentially life-changing measures being hurried in to fight the coronavirus pandemic. Many of these, from increased government surveillance to data breaches, may have worrying impacts on people’s privacy, freedom of information and other fundamental human rights.
Amid global panic, it’s hardly unfair to assume that universities may play a role in protecting people’s freedoms. They are, after all, supposed to be bastions of intellectual strength and liberty.
This makes all the more regrettable UCD’s attempt to make changes to its academic freedom policy – alterations that, rather inarguably, would have watered down the very academic freedom it exists to protect.
The UCD working group that put forward the amendments observed a “risk of tension” between academic freedom and “the strategic imperative to internationalise higher education”. In essence, it was a diplomatic justification of self-censorship in order to avoid offending powerful stakeholders.
UCD, like most Irish universities, relies heavily upon global links for income and prestige. But some of these ties are more troubling than others: a Confucius Institute partly funded by the Chinese government operates on campus, for example, despite numerous international controversies concerning such centres’ attempts to infringe upon universities’ academic freedom.
It is, of course, promising that 500 academics rallied to sign a petition against the amendments, ultimately forcing the college to scrap them. But that such an amendment was tabled in the first place, in one of Ireland’s leading universities, is deeply troubling.
That the powers that be in UCD sought to enshrine profit over academic freedom in policy could be considered an indictment of many current realities: from the higher education funding crisis, to the corporatisation of universities, to the globalisation of academic values.
But what is abundantly clear, today more than ever, is that we can’t take academic freedom for granted – and if we want to defend it, students and academics must stand together.