The pursuit of higher education does not merely mean working upon what is instructed or presented by supervisors. Neither does it mean indoctrination in any pre-defined stream or school of thought. It means much more than that. The pursuit of higher education serves as a challenge to broaden one’s own knowledge of any discipline or disciplines, which in turn substantiates humanity’s accumulation of knowledge. In the course of the modern history of mankind, higher education has been the most effective tool for securing almost all groundbreaking achievements and advances in theoretical as well as real-world domains.
However, the intrinsic power of higher education has always posed a challenge to established norms, attitudes and even authority, and is likely to continue to do so in the future. Hence, it has been throughout time subjected to the criticism of the masses and the scrutiny of totalitarian regimes holding power in any given era and region. Such regimes and societies, propelled by the fear that the values or positions they upheld were being undermined by the postulations of academic works of higher education practitioners, have resorted to excessive measures to protect these. Such measures which attempt to discipline higher education, like banning the public circulation of academic papers, coercing academics not to write on selected topics, building an alleged “common-sense” discourse around established ideologies and values, and persecuting those who veer from the established discourse or question the rationale of any ideology or value.
The milieu for the pursuit of higher education holds immense significance for it greatly determines the quality of academic works. An academic can perform to his or her optimum only if he or she is located in congenial surroundings. This essentially means the academic environment has to be safe, supportive, appreciative, inclusive, nurturing and respectful. Moreover, it should avoid putting pressure in any form, including mental trauma, sexual harassment, manhandling or other, on both learning and teaching faculty. The aforesaid holds value around the world as these are universal values associated with academic freedom.
It is the freedom to think that enables individual academics to critically explore and objectively reflect on any given issue. However, today when many (semi)-authoritarian regimes around the world, such as in Iran, Russia, Zimbabwe, China and elsewhere, are vociferously trying to dissuade intellectual questioning or dissent in order to cling to power, there arises a serious concern whether academics in these countries are able to enjoy their most deserving and fundamental freedom. Academia is an international community and cannot be segregated on the basis of state-borders; hence it is the responsibility of the international academic community to speak with one voice against the prevalent academic freedom violations, express solidarity and provide assistance in any possible way to help the persecuted academics residing in these countries to carry on their academic activities. Furthermore, it is also imperative for governments and their respective populations in all democratic countries worldwide to ensure that the same offences, which they point fingers at in authoritarian countries, are not happening in any way within their own national boundaries. Democratic countries need to establish a benchmark model with regard to the protection of comprehensive academic freedom in their practical conduct. Here the big question is whether any such benchmark or model currently exists? Unfortunately, the answer is no!
The recent SAR Congress in Amsterdam showed participants united in the belief that with the freedom to think comes the responsibility to act. Since its inception, Scholars At Risk has encouraged positive action within the international higher education community in support of academic freedom. As the SAR movement continues to grow and strengthen, my hope is that the international higher education community together with governments and other stakeholders, will invest more time and resources in developing the tools, including models and benchmarks, to enable us to together address the ever-increasing challenges to academic freedom around the world.