Dec 04

Does the university internationalisation agenda erode academic freedom?

Our seminar with John Smith Trust fellows explored the boundaries of ‘liberal’ and ‘authoritarian’ in international education and research cooperation

By John Heathershaw

On Thursday 22 November, Exeter hosted 25 John Smith Fellows from all five republics of Central Asia.  Our discussions of the possibilities and pitfalls of international education and research cooperation in Central Asia, took place in the shadow of the guilty verdict and life sentence handed down in the UAE the day before to Durham PhD student Matthew Hedges on charges of espionage.

Hedges is an MA graduate of the University of Exeter, lives in the city, and was a regular attender of the Gulf Studies seminar series at Exeter.  He undertook a short research trip to the UAE to conduct interviews to supplement his open source research on civil-military cooperation in the country.  His fieldwork was approved by the research ethics committee at Durham University and he is a well-known and increasingly recognised young researcher on the gulf.

The case evoked that of Alex Sodiqov in Tajikistan and those of other PhD researches from educational institutions in liberal democracies arrested by authoritarian states.

But in academic cooperation in both the Gulf and Central Asia, the boundaries between ‘liberal’ and ‘authoritarian’ are less clear-cut than the clash of cultures between Western-based students and national intelligence services suggests.  Participants explored these themes with some resisting the categories of liberal as normatively unpalatable and descriptively problematic while others felt they were a necessary heuristic to explain the challenges faced.

Participants including teachers and administrators with experience from universities in both Central Asia and the West spoke on an array of issues. Four stand out as paramount.

Firstly, the student culture of Generation Z in Kazakhstan was presented in a manner which suggested that it is far more similar to that of Western universities than may be expected.  Increasingly mental health problems, the acute need for peer group approval, the issue of plagiarism, and an instrumentalist approach to study – where the job at the end of education has become the priority despite low levels of unemployment for graduates – are issues in Kazakhstan which also crop up in the UK.  They appear to be connected to one another in Kazakhstan as increasing evidence suggests they are in the UK.

Secondly, the governance of academic institutions was identified as an issue where certain differences are accompanied by certain areas of commonality.  While in Central Asia, ministries of education directly govern universities, in the UK academic institutions are chartered and self-governing.  However, UK institutions are subject to regulatory institutions such as the Office for Students (in education) and the Research Evaluation Framework (in research) which restricts the autonomy of individual academics.  Metrics of performance are increasingly global and the presence of foreign deans and rectors in Central Asian institutions, and their adherence to common international standards, puts in doubt the notion of liberal educational environment.

A third area was that of ethics and values with one Central Asian participant correctly noting that foreign scholars must not expect to conduct research or teaching in Central Asia without reference to the ethical codes of the society in which they work.  However, the wide array of views in the room on whether values, and approaches to education, were national or universal hinted at the fact that the state does not have the monopoly on defining values and permissible knowledge.  Even in the Soviet era, it was pointed out, samizdat and hidden educational circles pushed the boundaries of acceptable knowledge and undermined attempts to set a single model of knowledge production.

A final set of questions related to what universities call ‘internationalisation’ – the specific attempt to grow international partnerships – which provided the impetus for the panel but which faces obstacles which are under-acknowledged by university leaders.  Both authoritarian states and liberal academic institutions are committed to international partnerships, with the UAE prioritising education despite imprisoning and censoring academics.

However, moments of crisis like that surrounding Matt Hedges suggest that supposedly liberal institutions can be meek at defending the autonomy of their citizens.   While university leaders issued bland statements of concern, it was the potential reputational damage caused by the appearance of repression, the petitions and statements of condemnation from scholarly bodies, and academics threatening to boycott partnerships with the UAE that seemed to be key in moving the Emirates to pardon Hedges.  While it would be easy to assume that security links and business ties may be a greater concern to the UAE, the UK government’s behaviour did not suggest it would have been willing to put those at risk for the sake of individual’s freedom. Similar lessons can be learned from the case of Alex Sodiqov.

The reputational risk associated with becoming a pariah in the academic world is of great concern to governments which recognise the importance of education and aspire to the neoliberal standards of modernity in the form of rankings, ratings and renown.

Supposedly ‘liberal’ institutions like Western universities are sometimes poor at defending their colleagues in prison, stay quiet when their academics are barred from their campuses abroad, say nothing while their academics threaten boycotts, and practice reputation management in order to defend themselves against charges that donations from autocracies may be what’s behind their unwillingness to speak out.  In doing so, they imitate some of the strategies of the autocracies themselves.

Conversely, it is often free-thinking scholars and activists in and from authoritarian regions that are willing to speak out and risk their liberty to engage in partnerships with foreign academics and institutions.  In doing so, they show greater courage and autonomy than university leaders who cower behind corporate communications strategies.

The conversation on Thursday 22 November, and the release of Matt Hedges on Monday 26 November, gave me pause for thought and cause for hope.  Collaborations between Western universities and their authoritarian hosts will provide more and more curtailments of academic freedom and may be increasingly difficult to justify.  However, international partnerships of academics deploying tactics of ‘critical engagement’ may create space for research and education in area studies across humanities and social sciences.

As Cat Owen has argued in a recent paper, the internationalization agenda certainly does threaten academic freedom in that it provides incentives for supposedly liberal institutions to self-censor where partnerships with wealthy partners in authoritarian states may be put at risk.

However, critical engagement by academics has the potential to propose new global standards for internationalization and effectively enforce conditions which must be upheld for engagement to be permissible.

The conversation on this topic is to be continued.