Academic freedom is one of the less discussed dimensions of freedom of expression, in comparison to press freedom and freedom of internet users. However, it has recently been thrust into public debate across Asia. As autocracy strengthens across the region, academic freedoms concurrently have deteriorated.
So how has this been taking place across Asia?
In Southeast Asia, for example Thailand, the challenge to academic freedom comes from the ultra-conservative elements in society. Royalists and other conservative groups are acting as vigilantes, attacking some academics and students, who express views perceived as anti-monarchy. As a result, academic work and activities are monitored and these groups lobby universities and higher education authorities to discipline or even expel students and staff.
In this regard, Thailand is not unique; Myanmar's higher education has also been dogged by similar conservative pressures in recent decades.
In Indonesia, the attacks mainly come from government officials. The last five years have seen a rise in attacks on academics and campuses, by government officials who lack an understanding of academic freedom. In order to respond to this situation, academics in Indonesia are banding together in groups and associations for mutual support and safety.
Government pressures also played out in the Philippines. In January, the Department of National Defence abruptly revoked the decade-long accord with the University of the Philippines (UP) prohibiting security forces from entering its premises, saying the university was becoming a recruiting ground for the communist New People's Army (NPA). The move came after President Duterte threatened to defund the university in November last year for its alleged involvement with the NPA.
In South Asia, such attacks come from academics and students in many institutions of higher learning. There are a myriad of examples from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, where progressive academics were attacked, sometimes with the support of religious groups, for their activities.
For instance, in February, scholar and dissent writer Mushtaq Ahmed passed away while serving his jail sentence. Mushtaq was arrested last year under the draconian Digital Security Act over his social media comments criticising the government's mismanagement of the Covid-19 public health calamity.
In East Asia, even in countries such as Taiwan where there is academic freedom, there is a new challenge: the increased commercialisation of higher education. This comes from Taiwan's push to move up in the world university's ranking which has compelled the government to encourage universities to prioritise and support research which are published in top-notch journals. This means academics now have less choices in terms of the type of research they want to do and where they can publish.
The National Security Law in Hong Kong is the newest challenge to academic freedom. Since its handover to the China in 1997, academic freedoms there have dwindled. It is unclear if universities can cope with the law while maintaining the spirit of dissent. The likely scenario is that staff and students will try to navigate the law's prohibition as well as attempt to engage in dialogue between the university, student bodies and law enforcement agencies. However, one cannot be too optimistic that academic freedom will prevail over self-censorship in Hong Kong.
If we review global indexes such as the Academic Freedom Index, Press Freedom Index, Freedom of the Net compiled by Global Public Policy Institute, Reporters without Borders and Freedom House respectively, there is a discernible correlation. Countries that score low on one of the indexes generally score low across the indexes.
This is so because the deterioration of academic freedoms around the world coincides with a parallel decline in fundamental freedoms, such as freedom of expression.
As rights are often defined by their universality and interdependence, a violation of one is bound to have impacts on another. In other words, the attacks on academic freedom are but a reflection of political repression broadly occurring globally.
To build resilience and foster change, academic, press and internet freedoms need to be considered together, as they form a cluster of rights which collectively make up freedom of expression and contribute to democratic development.
Otherwise, academics and students can no longer be seen as the drivers of democratic transition, and pluralistic democracy can no longer be nurtured at universities and other higher education institutions.
Dr James Gomez is Regional Director of Asia Centre. The Centre recently co-convened a panel discussion on the state of academic freedoms in Asia.