March 18, 2023
Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.
A global report has confirmed what we’ve known for a while: academic and cultural freedom, and institutional autonomy, have declined significantly in India since the Narendra Modi government came to power. The ‘Academic Freedom Index Update 2023’ was put together by 2,917 country experts across the world and coordinated by Swedish think tank V-Dem Institute and the Institute of Political Science at the Friedrich Alexander University in Germany. The report began to be talked about a day after the Union Home Ministry imposed restrictions on the foreign funding of the Centre for Policy Research, a think tank. The report noted a decline in “all aspects of academic freedom” after 2014.
The index computes a score based on five parameters — freedom to research and teach, freedom of academic exchange and dissemination, institutional autonomy of universities, freedom of academic and cultural expression and campus integrity, which means the absence of security infringements and surveillance.
The report said: “The attacks on academic freedom under Modi’s Hindu nationalist government were also possible due to the absence of a legal framework to protect academic freedom.”
The report identified 22 countries — including India, China, the US and Mexico — where universities and scholars experience much less academic freedom today than they did a decade ago. Of the 179 countries assessed, India is ranked in the bottom 30%, while the US is ranked among the top 50%. Significantly, India was behind neighbours like Nepal, Pakistan and Bhutan.
The academicians who compiled the study said that what distinguishes India from others is the mounting pressure on institutional autonomy and campus integrity combined with constraints on academicians’ freedom of expression.
There is no debate on whether academic freedom has a role in enabling societies to grow and resolve issues. Take what Katrin Kinzelbach, a professor of international politics at the Friedrich Alexander University, Erlangen, Germany, a co-author of the report, told ‘The Telegraph’: “Without freedom, universities become places of dogma rather than research, academics cannot fulfil their role in society, students cannot develop independent minds.”
The report noted that the undermining of institutional autonomy aligned with research that argued that “centralisation, bureaucratisation, and politicisation has historically produced weak university autonomy in India”. It added that there are no laws to protect academic freedom, which leads to their increased vulnerability under “Modi’s Hindu nationalist government”.
Incidentally, the V-Dem Institute was the one that had declared in 2021 that India’s electoral democracy had “collapsed” in 2016, giving way to an “electoral autocracy”.
Lars Pelke, a research scholar at the Friedrich Alexander University and also a co-author of the study, told ‘The Telegraph’: “…the data suggest the decline in academic freedom occurred in parallel to an autocratisation process in India.”
Kinzelbach and Pelke aren’t alone. Social science researchers Nandini Sundar at the University of Delhi and Gowhar Fazili at Ashoka University had listed in a 2020 paper the “growing restrictions on academic freedom” in India, including those on institutional autonomy, the freedom to acquire and express opinion and subversion of faculty selection.
They had pointed to harassment of dissenting students or faculty, with universities resorting to rustication, expulsion and withholding of scholarships of dissenters. Faculty, meanwhile were denied leave, their promotions stalled and their retirement benefits withheld.
It’s no wonder the V-Dem report said in summary that India “demonstrates the pernicious relationship between populist governments, autocratisation, and constraints on academic freedom”.
Let’s ask ourselves a fundamental question at this point: why is academic freedom important?
Since the dawn of organised education, the freedom of academic inquiry has been central to institutions. Freedom of inquiry has been at the core of inflection points in human history such as the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution.
Over time, universities have evolved from institutions based on pedagogy to those based on critical thinking and empirical observation. The freedom to engage in such intellectual inquiry is central, then, to higher education and its processes.
You can’t cultivate critical thinking without academic freedom. It is essential for inquiry-based learning, which is the heart of all human inquiry.
Inseparable from this freedom is institutional autonomy and self-governance. It should be up to universities to decide how to run themselves. And this includes managing appointments, determining admission criteria, formulating the curriculum, etc. It includes the right to engage in creating and distributing knowledge without restriction. And the freedom to study and to teach in ways you deem appropriate. And the freedom to arrive at your own viewpoints.
It’s clear, then, that academic freedom is a derivative of freedom of thought. It’s a fundamental right.
All of us would do well to remember that academic freedom is beneficial not only to professors, students and institutions but to society as a whole through the creation of knowledge which in turn leads to social and economic progress.
Thank you all for listening. Please visit allindiansmatter.in for more columns and audio podcasts. You can follow me on Twitter at @AshrafEngineer and @AllIndiansCount. Search for the All Indians Matter page on Facebook. On Instagram, the handle is @AllIndiansMatter. Email me at email@example.com. Catch you again soon.