Maria Montero

Freedom to think is the birthright of all …

Research is an act of rigorous academic commitment, which must be guided by the spirit of academic freedom, and in which the researcher’s right to ask pertinent questions that may disrupt the various power structures that mark our times should not be limited.

The UNESCORecommendation on the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel‘He declared, in 1997, that higher education institutions, particularly universities, are communities of scholars who preserve, disseminate and freely express their views on traditional knowledge and culture, and seek new knowledge unrestricted by established doctrines. These ideals of freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and freedom of expression are the cornerstones of committed research in any society.

Professor Meena T Pillai. Image: IFFK

Recently, a circular issued by the vice chancellor The Central University of Kerala made visible some of the flaws that mark the future of academic freedom and dedicated research in our country. The circular contained problematic clauses stating that research at the university should be conducted according to “national priorities”, that research in “irrelevant areas” no longer had to be promoted, and that the faculty would draw up a list of projects from which Prospective research scholars will be asked to choose their research topics.

Central Kerala University Circular by Tech2 on Scribd

Because I resigned

Being a member of the Board of Studies at the same university, a circular like this, which is detrimental to the prospects for free and academic research, struck me as appalling, made me register my protest for resign from the board. With my act of resignation, I wanted to draw attention to the many dangers that are latent in rules like this, in the hope that higher education will become a matter of public debate.

The decision on the part of the University to implement a request limiting prospective research to select areas that are in accordance with “national priorities” is highly hostile to the purpose of higher education in public universities. At a time when there is much debate about government attempts to restrict free speech cases that articulate dissent in different ways, such a move must be understood with great caution.

The CUK University VC issued the circular at the request of the Union Ministry of Human Resources Development.  Image: Collegedunia

The CUK University VC issued the circular at the request of the Union Ministry of Human Resources Development. Image: Collegedunia

Highly anti-democratic and restrictive, the clauses in the circular remind the discerning reader of the kinds of restrictions that are generally imposed in dictatorial regimes. This even feels like the basis for a change to such a disciplinary regime, if that change has not already occurred. It was equally alarming that very few voices responded to this, and that many didn’t seem to have a problem with it.

Who determines “national priorities”?

It can be said that the use of the term “national priorities” in itself is problematic within academics, since it limits the autonomy of the researcher and compromises the ethics that should form the basis of any academic endeavor. Many of us who work in the Indian university system, lately, have been alarmed by the structural and ideological changes that have spread throughout the academic world. In several universities, there have been attempts to suppress acts of dissent, acts of freedom of expression and protests of different kinds. In such a context, the smooth acceptance of “national priorities” should be questioned, especially when asking questions such as who can decide the nation’s priorities.

Study authors, InStem researchers.  Image courtesy: InStem