Image source: UiO
Progress in research and knowledge production happens and is shaped by debates and critical questions. Sometimes, however, even the very act of questioning established truths, facts and solutions becomes sensitive or disturbing in the eyes of business interests, policymakers, and governments.
Against this backdrop, there is a recurrent need to emphasize why academic freedom and values are so important for universities and societies. The Academic Refuge Project is an initiative that defends core academic values. This is an Erasmus+ Strategic Partnership developed with Scholars at Risk, UNICA and the University of Ljubljana, and it is coordinated by the University of Oslo (UiO).
In its first year (2016-17), Academic Refuge focused on welcoming refugees and threatened scholars on campus. UiO is currently hosting four scholars at risk, five students at risk and it has improved its services for refugees through the related Academic Dugnad project.
Over the course of the project’s second year, the focus has been on producing a massive open online course (MOOC) on academic freedom. The MOOC Dangerous Questions: Why Academic Freedom Matters will be launched on 4 June 2018.
In addition to the course, the Academic Refuge Project is organizing a MOOC launch event at the University of Ljubljana on 13 June to take the discussion further and focus on the challenges Southern and Eastern European countries face.
MOOC participants will be invited to discuss the right of scholars and students to ask and investigate a large variety of questions and the responsibility to disseminate the results, as well as the challenges experienced by scholars and students who ask sensitive questions and the problems connected to the societal consequences of silencing the academic community. With academic freedom comes great academic responsibility and accountability.
In Norway, academic freedom is protected by law, but individual students and staff members are still expressing doubt of where the limit to this freedom lies. Even in the peaceful Nordic societies, characterized by high levels of trust, scholars have to confront problems of self-imposed censorship and public censure, which may stifle necessary conversations. Dealing with questions related to academic freedom in international partnerships may be even more complicated.
International partners come from different national and political contexts, even though they are part of the same global, academic community. Academics may experience such pressures in their daily globalized life - for instance in cases where university researchers are put under pressure to change their conference papers to accommodate the government in the country hosting the conference. Incidents of the same or even more serious kind happen regularly around the world. When individuals are harassed and censored, societies lose important knowledge and input that would have allowed for improved practices.
A democratic society is dependent on a critical, independent and engaged academic sphere. The latter cannot flourish without academic freedom and responsibility.
Higher education staff and students can contribute by critically analysing the functioning and needs of society, as well as the way these elements evolve with disruption. Academic freedom is also a core academic value and a litmus test for the government’s ability to learn from new knowledge, as well as the wider democratic, social and cultural rights for majorities and minorities. Initiatives like this MOOC and the Scholars at Risk network which monitors attacks on higher education and academic freedom are important. Hopefully, they will create safe spaces for inquisitive minds and cultivate the value of asking high-risk questions.