Worlds of Education

Credits: Kevin Oliver via Flickr
Credits: Kevin Oliver via Flickr

Academic freedom and the 1997 UNESCO Recommendation: a view from Europe

published 5 November 2017 updated 21 November 2017
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For unions in the higher education and research sector, this year’s World Teachers’ Day takes on the greatest significance.

That’s because, in 2017, we are commemorating the 20th anniversary of the 1997 UNESCO recommendation concerning the status of higher education teaching personnel.

The UNESCO recommendation remains the most important international instrument in delineating the necessary parameters for academic freedom and in providing some form of potential redress for teachers’ organisations. One of key strengths of the document is its strong language on the links between academic freedom and ‘self-governance and collegiality’. For example, in order to ensure collegiality, it says academic staff should have“the right to elect a majority of representatives to academic bodies within the higher education institution”.Moreover, the recommendation places job security at the heart of academic freedom and argues that tenure“should be safeguarded as far as possible”. Both of these positions are in line with union approaches to the protection of academic freedom, but are increasingly under threat as a result of managerialism and casualisation.

Moreover, in many parts of the world, including in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA), governments are directly attacking academic freedom and institutional autonomy. The most serious assault in the EHEA is in Turkey, where over 7000 academic and administrative personnel have been targeted for dismissal from their positions. In addition to the mass firings of university staff, fifteen private universities have been closed and hundreds of academics and students detained in the crackdown by the Turkish authorities.

But it’s not just a problem in Turkey. This year we have seen a major challenge to institutional autonomy and academic freedom within an EU member state (i.e. the Hungarian government’s legislative strike on the Central European University). Less dramatically, academic freedom in Europe continues to be undermined by the marketisation of higher education, via the greater use of performance-based funding, the corporatisation of university governance and the growth in fixed-term contracts. Research is also heavily affected by these neo-liberal trends. For example, an increasingly selective and economistic funding model puts pressure on academics to research in particular national priority areas, while the growing commercialisation of research can restrict the timely dissemination of findings into the public domain. And while these pressures are often indirect, sometimes they can lead to direct threats to academic work. For example, a recent survey for UCU found that 23% of UK respondents (and 14% of EU respondents) reported being bullied as a result of their academic views.

Academics must remain free to question received wisdom and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions without placing themselves in jeopardy. That is the best way to ensure the generation and dissemination of new forms of knowledge. Education unions are well placed to take up the fight in this area, for example, in lobbying for increased funding for basic research, campaigning for democratic forms of governance and negotiating for better job security. The 1997 UNESCO recommendation remains one of the tools we can use in our work to defend and strengthen academic freedom.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.