Academic Freedom – Myth or Reality?

The professionals of this discipline say that it was made possible by fast aancements in the areas of electronic and information technologies. Yet one thing is quite clear, this change has made information cheaper, more readily available and accessible to the general public.

By information one means all sorts of information, from those [information] consumed for mere amusement to those affecting day-to-day existence. And both are a lot more accessible now. The social media takes no smaller credit in this dynamism. This medium of communication is now a giant pit of information. Matters of utmost importance and those we can easily go without are discussed, dissected and digested across the expansive social media today. The point remains that it is a “social” media nonetheless.

The larger share of the information across the social media is pleasantly or agonizingly [depending on one’s appetite] subjective. Major national issues are reflected upon from a personal point of view, an individual’s vantage point and from one’s religious, political and social perspectives, most of the time lacking meaningful benchmarking.

These discussions have no entry barriers or structured framework anyone who has something to bring to the table about any subject can, and everyone looks to have an opinion about everything. Hence, perks of this medium of communication that is accessibility of information also entails a substantive cost. The cost of filtering the useful from the waste, the credible from the doubtful and the objective from the prejudiced.

For the most part, mainstream media does not succumb to this dilemma. Professional and ethical standards require rigorous citations and attributions of comments solicited, and rectifying why particular personalities were invited to share thoughts on the said subject. As important as this is to draw a clear line between the two mediums of communication, acquiring the right professional opinion to the right issue is also an ongoing challenge to the mainstream media industry.

This is particularly relatable to media institutions in Ethiopia, where soliciting comments on issues of public interest is becoming a tiresome activity. And as such, obtaining expert level opinions is proving to be difficult. This is not limited to mainstream outlets, the academic research sector is also suffering from a deafening silence. Apparently, this is becoming one of the salient characteristics of the Ethiopian academia these days.

With the exception of few, the majority of the scholarly community is long withdrawn from either commenting in the public media or shedding light on important issues via scientific research. Whatever research is going on at the higher education institution level these days is more for the sake of the pursuit of academic knowledge than focusing on actual problems. Mulu Nega (PhD), expert in quality assurance of higher education institutions, and lecturer at the Addis Ababa University’s Institute of Educational Research, concurs with the above observation.

“Currently, the Ethiopian academia is in grappling fear,” Mulu told The Reporter, and this is evident not only in its reservation to comment freely on the media but by keeping away from most sensitive areas while researching. Media consumption aside, the level of national research into the most critical parts of Ethiopia’s socio-economic life is hard to come by these days, Mulu believes. In one way or another, one can hardly find members of the Ethiopian academia that can argue in favor of research outputs and knowledge aancements.

Furthermore, increasing distance from the media can be linked to this lack of up-to-date research outputs from these higher learning institutions. Well, it is not that easy, according to most scholars including Mulu most of these professionals in the Ethiopian high learning institutions argue that the academic environment where they are working is the one to blame. For instance, Mulu claims that academic freedom and institutional autonomy are necessary conditions for a thriving scholarship and scholarly activities. Better yet, many claim that the fragile quality of education in Ethiopia is inevitably intertwined with the issue of academic freedom and institutional autonomy. Elusive academic freedom

The recent trend among the Ethiopian academia hence is self-reservation in anticipation of repression of these rights. In fact, the very issue of academic freedom and institutional autonomy is at the top of every problem in this sector. And this includes every sector except for the education sector, and its inherent weaknesses that is exhibited at the moment.

The teaching staff and members of the scholarly community blame the lack of these basic academic rights, while few question if they [academic freedom and institutional autonomy] are in fact factors as they are claimed to be. Furthermore, these few professionals also doubt if the two are even burning issues for Ethiopian higher learning institutions at this time. Tekeste Negash (Prof.) is one such academic. In an exclusive interview with The Reporter, Tekeste argued that academic freedom is a mere rhetoric for Ethiopian scholars, and that it does not carry any weight.

To support his assertion, Tekeste goes to the heart of the higher learning institutions that is research and study. According to him, a higher learning institution that produces no meaningful research outputs and solve problems can in no way claim that its restrained academic freedom is what is holding it back.

“As far as I am concerned, restraint on academic freedom is when the scholar faces prohibition from studying a specific areasubject or when it is barred from sharing the findings of hisher study,” he explains. On top of that, an impediment placed on the academic society affecting the teaching-learning process is also something that can be considered an infringement of this sensitive freedom, he added.

But to date, Tekeste has not seen that happen in Ethiopia. All in all, Tekeste refuses to believe that the Ethiopian academic community is constrained by limited rights to execute its scholarly duties. The issue is more about the capacity of academia than anything else, he argues further. Another seasoned member of the academic community at the AAU, Yeraswork Admassie (Ph.D.), partly shares Tekeste’s sentiments. But not fully, he thinks that academic freedom is partly a problem in higher learning institutions in Ethiopia to the extent of badly impacting quality. Yeraswork considers the overstretched rights that the students exercise in the name of academic freedom to be a major hurdle to quality.

“Students now go as far as harassing their teachers to impact their exam outcomes and academic evaluation,” according to him teachers and institutions cannot be held accountable for the quality of the education and the output [the students] under such conditions. At best the matter seems to be controversial. On one side, scholars do not agree with the rights to have a special legal safeguard by way of academic freedom is a right that is protected irrespective of whether or not the scholarly duties are diligently executed.

While others consider the members of the academic community to be entitled to be curtailed from any interference whether they are living up to their responsibilities as centers of excellence or not. Meanwhile, other scholars argue for this right to be extremely dependent on the scholarly duties of the academic communities.

Still, controversial is the width and breadth of this concept dubbed academic freedom. A case in point is the supposed level of discretion exercised by a teacher while delivering a course syllabus in a classroom. This is uniquely important for the social-science disciplines since the subject matter entails a fair degree of ideological discourse and value judgment.

So, while delivering the course, how far teachers can go in expressing their own views on specific issues is a very important question. In a way, what the teacher adds up to the course syllabus is not purely non-academic, hence it can be argued that it is within the academic freedom of the teacher to do so. Meanwhile, teachers are primarily responsible for curtailing students from bias and teaching the truth.

This matter is much more controversial, even in the international arena. J. Peter Byrne’s “Academic Freedom: A Special Concern of the First Amendment” talks of the inherent self-fallacies in upholding academic freedom. He says that one can answer why the academic staff is entitled to a special legal safeguard by way of academic freedom, that it is because they have a special responsibility to the public, he explains, that is finding the truth and adding to the stock of knowledge.

Tekeste mirrors J. Peter Byrne’s opinion regarding this point. According to Tekeste, the academic society, which is not living up to its expectations, cannot ask to benefit from special legal protection. “When a member of the media requests freedom of the press, one ought to ask if they [members of the press] execute their professional obligations up to the ethical, and professional standards set for them,” Tekeste explains citing the analogous case of the media. Nevertheless, Mulu counters that, saying that academic freedom and its derivative institutional autonomy is a prerequisite to having a thriving center of excellence.

Regarding international standards, the United Nation’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO’s) recommendation concerning the status of higher-Education Teaching personal adopted in November 1997 is by far the most recognized. As co-signer to this convention, Ethiopia had the responsibility to uphold the recommendation of this document and to that end, a study by the Forum for Social Studies (FSS), an independent think-tank, revealed that this recommendation is not at all known to the teaching professionals across the public and private higher learning institutions in Ethiopia.

The study showed that the personnel do not recognize this convention let alone ask what has been inscribed in the recommendation and endorsed by Ethiopia. As far as the recommendation goes, one can clearly see the likes of confusion expressed by the professionals above. For instance, it says that teaching personnel, apart from enjoying the right the general public enjoys, have the right without limitations to teaching and discussion, freedom in carrying out research and disseminating results, freedom to express opinions on the policies of the government, the institution they work for and freedom to take part in professional associations. Nonetheless, not too far down, the recommendation states the duties and responsibilities of the personnel, saying that all this is under the expectation that teachers function in a recognized intellectual standard and scientific inquiry and research ethics.

Similarly, the issue of institutional autonomy is also as controversial across the world. Here as well, various conflicting interests come head-to-head. For instance, the level of government interference in the academic world is also a bone of contention. According to the professionals, institutional autonomy encompasses organizational, staffing, financial and academic aspects. For instance, Mulu dismisses Ethiopian higher learning institution leaders for not demanding the level of autonomy that is granted on the proclamation.

Here, as far as the leadership of the institutions is concerned, Tekeste and Mulu share the same view. “One example is the financial aspect where the proclamation allocates a block budget to higher learning institutions and the leadership is still receiving line budget from the government without objection,” Mulu argues. Here, one relevant point is the extent of external interference [government’s] in pursuit of national goals. Such goals are not necessarily in-line with the interest of academia. So, interference by governments could also constitute another area where confusion reigns between freedom of academia and aancement of other values.

Source : The Reporter

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