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H. Osieja

Helen Osieja Teaching and Learning Adviser (SWEDEN)
The main objective of this article is to discuss the relevance of academic freedom as a cornerstone for lecturing and research in institutions of higher education. Academic research is related to, but not the same as freedom of speech: While freedom of speech is a fundamental precondition for a lecturer to exercise academic freedom, the latter is limited by curricular requirements, time frames and academic rigor.

The main reason why academic freedom should exist in institutions of higher education is to guarantee that teaching, learning and research are free from state intervention and manipulation. If the search for the truth, and not indoctrination, is the highest aim of colleges and universities, then academic freedom is a basic precondition of both teaching and research. Nonetheless, and in spite of the high ideals expressed in the philosophies of many universities, the search for truth carried out at institutions of higher education is in many cases jeopardized by the political establishment and other actors.

Due to the pluralistic nature of Western democracies, one could take academic freedom for granted in Western countries. Nevertheless, the increasing leverage of external actors like corporations, foundations, political parties and other organizations with their own agendas and invested interests have had as a consequence a great encroachment on academic freedom. Since some organizations finance research projects, they have a direct and indirect impact on the careers of professors and other educational staff. Professors who do research in the topics that the sponsor organizations are interested in is given priority over research in areas which are not as relevant for these actors but that might be of a much greater relevance in terms of social development, social justice and/ or the search for truth.

The aims of this paper are first, to define the basic philosophy or philosophies of academic freedom in different countries and to review its history; second, to explain the relationship between academic freedom and educational responsibility; third, to review the international legislation on academic freedom, e.g. UNESCO principles, and fourth, to identify and critically analyze the main problems academic freedom faces in different societies.

While the threats to academic freedom are open and obvious in totalitarian regimes, in Western societies, lecturers, instructors and professors have to be careful that what they present in their classes, however true, does not make students feel uncomfortable. This is especially true in private universities, where students are seen as customers who have to be satisfied with a service they pay for. The consequences of this political correctness are dire: Students are not encouraged to develop their reasoning, their horizons are not broadened and their preconceived ideas are not challenged. Even more dramatic is the fact that some university professors have been terminated for presenting research based on facts which is not favorable to the image of organizations that sponsor the university.

Just like international human rights, academic freedom needs a universal definition, and must be protected if higher education is to attain its goals: Academic freedom is not only the basis for effective teaching and learning, but also a core value for academia.