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Context, Academic Freedom and the Ethics of Internationalisation

  • 23 April 2021
  • By Catherine Owen

Following yesterday’s debate on China in the House of Commons, we are running a blog on academic freedom that has been kindly written for HEPI by Dr Catherine Owen, Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Exeter. You can find Catherine on Twitter @CatOwenExeter.

In the UK, it appears that the concept of academic freedom is increasingly being taken out of context and deployed, in the abstract, to assert superiority and to challenge political enemies. It runs the risk of becoming what philosopher W.B. Gallie termed an ‘essentially contested concept’ – an empty signifier whose meaning ‘cannot be settled by appeal to empirical evidence’.

Yet, rather than there being a single, universally applicable notion of academic freedom, the boundaries and limits of what it is possible to study and publish on are deeply contextual and are expressed differently in different societies. These limits emerge from the historical relationship between the university and the government; they are conditioned by a polity’s wider legal norms governing speech, such as intellectual property, libel, the broader constitution and others; and they are driven by the various financial interests that fund university activity. Thus, academic freedom is never constant: it ebbs and flows, interacting with these other dynamics as they themselves shift and change across different domestic settings.

At the same time, the globalisation of academic activity presumes the adoption by universities around the world of a certain degree of shared values about knowledge production, many of which have their roots in the development of European and American university systems. Yet, it is clear that this is not always happening and increasingly influential actors are challenging these values and, sometimes, rejecting them. I have written about this in detail here.

This impasse is best exemplified with reference to China, which is becoming the UK’s biggest research partner. Unsurprisingly, given the vastly different social and political contexts in China and in the UK, controversies about acceptable knowledge production are emerging with increasing regularity. Most recently, three individual researchers and one entire research institution were banned from travelling to China, on the basis of their work on the repressions in Xinjiang and in retaliation to European sanctions on Chinese officials. These conflicts are taking place in the context of sharply escalating political hostilities between China and the West. At the same time, one only has to open the pages of any English-language International Relations journal to find numerous critical works on Chinese affairs by both Chinese and non-Chinese authors. Myriad successful partnerships, both individual and institutional are on-going, highly productive and mutually fulfilling. This underscores the importance of context in knowledge co-production.

How can we tackle the threat posed by non-liberal states to academic freedom within British universities – where the concept forms a cornerstone of scholarly activities? I strongly believe that there must be a way to address this problem that does not resort to either forcing partners to adopt our standards or decoupling from those partnerships in which this tension feels most acute. We must be able to respect and work with difference.

In the remainder of this post, I present five suggestions for building fruitful international partnerships that allow for diversity in knowledge production practices.

Firstly, the nature of global partnerships shapes the character of individual universities and everyone working or studying should have a say in shaping that. Transparency should be key: memoranda of cooperation should be available to staff and the risks and benefits of each formal agreement should be debated by all those who are interested, staff and students. In this regard, I agree with my colleague John Heathershaw, who recently proposed a framework that stipulates such transparency on this blog.

The challenge is that international partnerships often occur from the bottom up: i.e. they are often created through a formalisation of individual academics’ research links. This means that building consensus about internationalisation requires us to find a balance between the forging of partnerships that advance specific research agendas and making sure staff feel that they have some influence over the trajectory of internationalisation.

Secondly, the marketisation of higher education has greatly impacted internationalisation strategies: universities are increasingly shaped less by the pursuit of knowledge and more by the pursuit of high fee-paying students, the symbolic capital of linking with ‘rising star’ universities in emerging markets and investments from private donors. Reversing this trend requires a reconsideration of the funding sources of the British university and necessitates the provision of sustainable financial resources that do not come with a prescribed agenda.

Clearly, this feels like a very remote possibility in the current political climate, but there are measures than can mitigate the risks: details about endowments and gifts to the university can be published; support can be made available to staff who may come under pressure from student groups or state actors regarding curricula; and, as mentioned, we can deliberate the pros and cons of institutional linkages.

Thirdly, we must begin international collaborations with an understanding of the approach to knowledge production – particularly in the Social Sciences – within those states with which we are seeking to engage. This requires a granular understanding of the development of higher education and its interaction with government and a location of the norms of knowledge production within their domestic contexts. With that understanding, it becomes possible to map out areas where collaboration will be most fruitful and flag areas in which conflict may arise.

Any cooperative framework must safeguard both the scholarly principles that underpin British universities and the safety of students and staff wishing to study topics considered sensitive in partner countries. Sometimes these two principles will be in conflict: for example, the need to protect a visiting Chinese student wanting to write on detention camps in Xinjiang will require a tough trade-off between his or her physical security and the institution’s commitment to academic freedom. A frank conversation would have to be had with that student to ascertain that they are fully aware of the potential consequences of pursuing such a topic. In my opinion, it is inevitable that our commitment to academic freedom will sometimes be compromised in an increasingly internationalised university.

Fourthly, finding a common language to discuss controversial topics is important if we want to be able to influence political outcomes and that sometimes requires compromise. For instance, many scholars at Chinese universities do not support the mass detentions and cultural erasure of Uyghur Muslims, yet have little recourse to action. And as China and the West ricochet further apart on this issue, the chance of influencing scholarly consensus in China or supporting those who disagree becomes ever slimmer.

Finally, the space to study and publish freely is shrinking around the world, in democracies and non-democracies alike, including in the UK. To fully tackle the threat posed by authoritarian regimes, we must consider why the decline of academic freedom is a global trend and examine our own practices that stymie free public debate. We must consider what it is it about our globally connected and financially integrated system of knowledge production and exchange that feeds these trends.

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