Academic freedom violations in public institutions are increasing

Academic freedom in African universities has dipped significantly in the recent past as a result of threats by political systems, according to researchers who searched databases on the issue in Scopus and Google Scholar platforms. The papers were published between 2004 and 2022.

Dr Jonathan Odame, a lecturer of education at the University of Ghana, Legon, and Dr Kofi Koranteng Adu, a communication researcher at the University of South Africa, or UNISA, in a study published in the current issue of the peer-reviewed International Journal of Educational Development, retrieved only 25 papers on academic freedom in Africa.

The papers were categorised in five thematic areas: laws for the protection of academic freedom; the effects of colonialism on academic freedom; safety and academic freedom; academic freedom and intellectual engagement; and academic freedom and sexuality.

South Africa had 15 papers, or 60% of the total publications, while Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Ghana had two papers each and Kenya, Namibia, Egypt and Tunisia one paper each.

In the study, ‘Academic freedom in Africa: A systematic review of content analysis studies’, the two scholars noted that academic freedom in Africa is violated by governments and academic institutions and taken for granted by politicians.

Common phenomenon

According to Odame and Adu, violations against academic freedom have become a common phenomenon across public universities in Africa. “Socially, the subject is hardly talked about as it is considered as an attempt to question the authority of superiors,” stated the two researchers.

They argued that it is for this reason that even the available literature on academic freedom in the continent approached the subject from global perspectives rather than from the African context.

Researchers said that most African governments favoured the narrow definition of academic freedom merely as the right to teach and to do research, but disregarded democratic and human basic rights as integral parts of academic freedom.

For instance, there is wide violation of institutional governance, whereby many public universities appeared to have lost their academic autonomy, especially the power to appoint top management, to choose the courses to teach and to select fields of research.

In this regard, 12 countries, that included Algeria, Benin, Botswana, Central Africa Republic, Côte d’ Ivoire, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Kenya, Mali, Swaziland and Zimbabwe, were found to have failed to comply with institutional governance in accordance with the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s recommendations on academic freedom.

According to Odame and Adu, academic freedom in Africa has also stagnated in Mali, Guinea Bissau and Burkina Faso, all countries that have experienced an upsurge in military takeovers in the recent past. In this context, academic freedom in Sudan will continue to be curtailed.

Factors limiting academic freedom

Other researchers pointed out that limits of democracy in many African countries, occasioned by electoral violence and constitutional coups invariably extending the tenure and powers of the executive and surveillance of academics, are setbacks to academic freedom.

Dr Liisa Laakso, a senior researcher at Nordic Africa Institute, and Hajer Kratou, an associate professor of economics at Ajman University in the United Arab Emirates, also faulted multiparty political systems for not increasing processes that would contribute to academic freedom.

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