Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Analysing dip in Academic Freedom Index: Who takes the deepest plunge?

Dr. Shirin Akhter, Dr. Vijender Singh Chauhan

The recent revelation on the Academic Freedom Index (AFI) shows that academic freedom has registered a further dip in India. The report notes a downward trend in academic freedom that began around 2009, with a marked decrease in university autonomy followed by a sharp downturn across all indicators from 2013.

India’s academic freedom has reportedly been declining significantly since 2013. India is placed among the bottom 30% of countries evaluated in the AFI, with an index score of less than 0.38 out of 1. This significant downturn in academic freedom has been attributed to a lack of legal frameworks to protect academic freedom, pressure on institutional dimensions such as autonomy and integrity, and the political environment influencing academia. The V-Dem Institute’s analysis suggests a correlation between this decline and India’s trajectory towards what they label as electoral autocracy, indicating a complex relationship between political changes and academic freedom.

A pertinent question that must be asked in context is who gets hurt by this loss of academic freedom? Understandably,  any such dip would hurt the interests of those who are directly involved in the teaching-learning process, but it has far-reaching implications that extend beyond the immediate confines of academic institutions, potentially exacerbating social inequalities and disproportionately impacting the weaker sections of society, these consequences need to be carefully examined. When academic freedom is curtailed, it is not merely an affront to the autonomy of educators and scholars; it signals a broader constriction of the social and intellectual spaces necessary for the pursuit of knowledge, critical discourse, and innovation. This contraction can magnify existing societal divides, especially between the more affluent sections of society and those that are economically and socially marginalised.

We bring out the links in this chain of a dip in the AFI and its differential impacts on the weaker sections of society. Firstly, a reduction in academic freedom often leads to a homogenisation of thought and a stifling of diverse perspectives. Universities and academic institutions serve as critical arenas for challenging prevailing narratives and introducing new ideas. When these spaces are constrained, the result is often a curriculum that aligns more closely with dominant ideologies and interests. For marginalised groups, this means fewer opportunities to see their experiences and perspectives reflected in academic discourse, limiting their access to a form of representation that can validate their struggles and contribute to societal change.

Moreover, the weakening of academic freedom tends to discourage research into areas that may challenge the status quo or highlight issues of social injustice, inequality, or environmental degradation. This can have a direct impact on the capacity of researchers to address problems that disproportionately affect the poorer sections of society. For instance, studies into the effects of pollution, land dispossession, or labour exploitation are essential for advocating policy changes that protect vulnerable populations. Without the freedom to pursue such research, academia’s role in fostering social justice and advocating for the underprivileged is severely diminished.

Additionally, the decline in academic freedom exacerbates economic disparities. Education is a powerful tool for social mobility, offering individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to improve their socio-economic status. However, when academic freedoms are compromised, the quality and breadth of education suffer, disproportionately affecting students from less affluent backgrounds. These students are more reliant on public education systems, which are often the first to experience the repercussions of restrictive academic policies. In contrast, wealthier segments of society may circumvent these limitations through access to private institutions or educational opportunities abroad, thereby widening the educational and economic gap between different societal groups.

The political environment that often accompanies a decline in academic freedom, marked by authoritarianism or autocratic tendencies, can further entrench social divides. In such contexts, dissent is stifled, and public discourse is narrowed, disproportionately silencing the voices of marginalised communities. These groups frequently bear the brunt of authoritarian policies, including increased surveillance, censorship, and the suppression of cultural expression. Their ability to challenge these policies academically or through public engagement is crucial for their empowerment and the safeguarding of their rights. The erosion of academic freedom, therefore, undermines a vital avenue for these communities to contest and negotiate their position within society.

The implications of a decline in academic freedom are thus profoundly unequal, amplifying existing disparities and reinforcing the barriers that impede the advancement of less privileged sections of society, though a fortification of the teaching-learning process is bound to hurt every single individual, some sooner than later. It would be a grave folly to assume that restrictions on academic freedom will stand to gain anybody but the immediate power centre.  Addressing this decline requires a concerted effort that recognises the integral role of academic freedom in fostering a just, equitable, and dynamic society. While we find countries like China, the United States (notably during the Trump administration), and Turkey frequently cited in discussions about the decline in academic freedom, we also see countries such as Gambia, Uzbekistan, Seychelles, Montenegro, and Kazakhstan, being cited as examples where improvements in academic freedom have been observed. While specific actions taken to ensure this rise in academic freedom vary depending on the country’s unique context, we need to figure out what they have done, that we failed to do, to witness this increase.

Some common strategies and developments contributing to this improvement can be listed as, the establishment of robust legal frameworks that explicitly safeguard academic freedom, framing of laws and regulations that provide a bulwark against censorship, undue political interference ensuring that the academic realm remains a bastion of free thought and inquiry.

Equally important is the promotion of institutional autonomy. Universities need to wield the autonomy to navigate their administrative, financial, and academic decisions without external imposition. This independence is a cornerstone of academic freedom, enabling institutions to foster an environment conducive to innovation and critical thinking. The improvement of governance structures within these institutions also plays a pivotal role. By implementing reforms aimed at enhancing transparency, accountability, and inclusivity in decision-making processes, universities can embody principles of democratic governance.

Ensuring diverse representation within these structures will not only enrich the decision-making process but also ensure that a wide array of perspectives is considered, thereby strengthening the academic community. Moreover, fostering an environment that nurtures open dialogue, critical thinking, and collaborative academic exchange is vital. Initiatives that support interdisciplinary research, international collaborations, and public engagement are instrumental in this regard. Such efforts not only amplify the impact of academic work but also facilitate the cross-pollination of ideas, thereby enriching the academic landscape. Enhancing financial support for higher education and research is another critical area of focus. By increasing funding and providing grants and fellowships that encourage independent research, particularly in areas that may be deemed politically sensitive, the academic community can further safeguard its freedom.

International support and collaboration are key to promoting and protecting academic freedom on a global scale. Engaging with international organisations, academic networks, and foreign institutions offers a platform for collective action. Participation in international declarations, agreements, and partnerships dedicated to the protection of academic freedom underscores the universal value of these principles and reinforces the global commitment to their preservation. In summary, the path to strengthening academic freedom and the autonomy of academic institutions is multifaceted, requiring affirmative efforts that cut across legal, institutional, financial, and societal domains. Unless we carefully work to move up the AFI ladder, we will be left staring at the ever-rising wedge between the rich and the poor, the ensuing chaos and levels of economic development that are sub-optimal and inefficient.

Dr. Shirin Akhter and Dr. Vijender Singh Chauhan hold positions as associate professors at Zakir Husain Delhi College, University of Delhi.

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