RECENTLY, a number of letters from staff and students of the University of KwaZulu-Natal have appeared in The Witness. At one stage their common, and most notable, characteristic was that their authors chose to remain anonymous, or use pseudonyms. As a result the public might justifiably have concluded that the university is a place of fear in which its members are penalised for speaking out or even expressing an opinion. This is not in fact the case, but the current atmosphere provides an opportune moment to look afresh at the concept of academic freedom.

This was a hot topic during the years of apartheid: the Academic Freedom Committee of the University of Natal met regularly and there was considerable competition to serve on it. The political settlement of the mid-nineties caused academic freedom to disappear over history’s horizon, so much so that when the Higher Education Act became law there was little or no comment.

The legislation fundamentally altered the standing of universities in ways that have implications for academic freedom. One of them is to encourage the highly dangerous idea that our universities are part of a government department. We have already experienced the power vested in the Minister of Education regarding mergers, many of which have no demonstrable educational rationale.

 Significantly, academic freedom is recognised in the Bill of Rights that forms part of our admirable Constitution. Academic freedom thrives when students are able, through research and teaching, to seek out the truth and circulate their newly acquired knowledge without hindrance. This requires access to sources and unrestricted exchange of ideas and information.

David Welsh of the University of Cape Town once described this as ‘Hyde Park writ large’. In this day and age academic freedom also needs to encompass the right to participate fully in the governance of the university and express opinions about it without fear of reprisal, provided this is exercised within reasonable boundaries of common decency, civility, the rules of scholarly debate and the laws of libel. Anonymous writers of letters to the newspaper presumably fear that this right might not be respected.

Academic freedom presupposes that a university is not primarily a business nor a vocational training centre, but a self-regulating community of intellectuals. John Stuart Mill called the university ‘a market place of ideas’, so it follows that a well-constructed thought or a well-argued case is more important than status. Academic debate has its own inherent, global authority and this is why an African university (as opposed to a university in Africa concerned about continental issues) is a contradiction in terms. Nor is a true university answerable to administrative, bureaucratic or political agendas: no university as an institution can adopt a dogmatic or ideological stance. The search for objective truth is quite different from any other human activity.

Threats to academic freedom are posed by the diversification of sources of university income, increased government interference and a general loss of autonomy. New management approaches have reduced collegiality in universities and replaced academic advocates by line mangers administering decisions made at the top. There is a fear that universities could eventually cease to be communities of independent intellectuals and turn into little more than factories populated not by real teachers but by labour units on short-term contracts fearful of disciplinary action. Fear and self-censorship are probably the greatest enemies of academic freedom, which requires a climate of intellectual curiosity, reasoned dissent and sharp (sometimes acerbic) criticism.

Why should society as a whole be concerned about this; does it matter? The work of universities contributes massively to the integrity of democratic societies. They make sure that knowledge is not monopolised by narrow vested interests; and at their best they provide the dissenters and the critics, the awkward squad that keeps debate alive and societies on their toes. It is important to realise that societies are essentially coercive (sometimes for good reasons remembering that anarchy is the ultimate alternative) and that academic freedom is a specially engineered space. It is also a fundamentally liberal concept and, like other civil rights, remarkably fragile. It rests on acceptance of individual ethics, the exercise of conscience, and the obligation and responsibility to investigate and speak out regarding what is important and true. A culture of independent thinking that values individual conviction is imperative in a situation predisposed towards conformity. Society would be desperately poorer without the benefits that academic freedom brings to universities.

South Africa has a sad history of conformism in thought and action: the longevity of apartheid would not have been possible without it. Academic freedom, and those individuals who fought to preserve it in the face of severe authoritarianism, served the cause of the liberation struggle loyally and well. Some universities harboured and protected the dissidents who campaigned for a democratic society; collected data about civil and human rights violations and communicated their findings to the world at large; and explored and promoted issues such as justice and equity. All of this contributed unequivocally to the downfall of a brutal and illegitimate political system.

Academic freedom is just as relevant today as it was in the dark days of apartheid. Some of the most significant material countering the HIV/Aids denialists and the globalisation propagandists is supplied by university academics. And there is plenty of evidence from low levels of morale that there is a need as never before the concept of academic freedom to be invoked in the name of broader participation in university governance.

This article was first published in The Witness on 31 May 2005 and entitled ‘Academic freedom’