Set standards for academic freedom

Academic freedom is a vital aspect and core value of universities.

Without it, universities cannot pursue the discovery, promotion and transmission of truth and lay the foundation to build a better world ("Safe spaces shouldn't be echo chambers"; last Friday).

Research shows that the challenges facing academic freedom include the difficulty of defining it, resistance by various socio-political forces, its lack of attention by agencies such as the World Bank or Unesco, the re-engineering of traditional universities and the influence of disruptive technologies.

In addition, there is no concerted drive to promote academic freedom and achieve a universally accepted level of standard and practice.

As a result, there are questions that beg to be answered.

Should academics be given uninhibited freedom? If not, what are the limits and boundaries of academic freedom and, if they are being infringed upon, how should academics be taken to task?

Can academic freedom be used as an excuse to avoid being accountable for efficient use of limited resources and adhering to a well-prescribed code of ethics and conduct? Does academic freedom offer carte blanche to violate generally accepted rules?

To stretch it to an extreme, does academic freedom offer the freedom to lie and cheat? Does the right of free speech underwrite the freedom to speak and act irresponsibly?

This issue is probably better understood in the Asian context, because some people operate through a tribal lens, and protecting their turf is a cultural imperative.

There are also other fault lines that are defined by community, creed, culture and custom, and these cracks can be easily triggered to cause social upheavals and other forms of unrest.

Proponents of academic freedom need to develop a universally accepted standard and practice, and further explore advocacy opportunities to highlight values of academic freedom.

The battle to establish a healthy climate for academic freedom is a worthy one, and the tide against it may be turned by the trends of globalisation, education and social media.

Patrick Liew Siow Gian (Dr)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 01, 2015, with the headline 'Set standards for academic freedom'. Print Edition | Subscribe