The range of containment measures imposed by national governments to counter the spread of the coronavirus pandemic has dramatically affected research, teaching and learning in African universities – in some cases leading to their suspension. In these unusual circumstances, what are the implications for academic freedom?
According to Professor Kwadwo Appiagyei-Atua, based in the School of Law at the University of Ghana, international human rights law allows for states to derogate from the exercise of citizen rights during periods of emergency.
“Academic freedom falls under one of the derogable rights, being a combination of freedom of expression and the right to education,” he said.
However, despite emergency powers, it was also necessary that government responses be “reasonable, proportionate and within the law, that is, the constitution of the country and international human rights law, such as expressed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
"This will give academics the freedom to critique any excesses committed by state officials in the course of performing their functions to control the pandemic," Appiagyei-Atua said.
He said university staff unions should “educate their membership to know the limitations imposed on the exercise of their academic freedoms during emergencies and to report any infringements on their rights and freedom”.
Online education – The only choice
Edmore Kori, a researcher at the University of Venda, South Africa, said the freedom to transmit knowledge and ideas, conduct research, teaching, study and engage in academic discussions has been whittled down during the lockdown to one choice only: online education.
Kori, who is the author of a 2016 paper entitled “Challenges to academic freedom and institutional autonomy in South African universities”, said forced online or virtual learning created difficulties for tech-averse students and staff and negatively affected the teaching of practical subjects.
However, he said it was very difficult, given the COVID-19 pandemic, to suggest alternative ways to safeguard academic freedom and still remain safe.
“Therefore, there is no option, but to follow government leadership,” he said.
Ilyas Saliba, a research associate in democracy and human rights in the Middle East and North Africa based at the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, Germany, told University World News that the closure of African universities and restrictions on teaching will affect universities where digital infrastructure is poor and e-teaching is therefore “difficult”.
“Teaching will come to a total halt in many African countries.”
Saliba said the situation also raised concerns about restrictions on the freedom of speech to contain the spread of false information.
Such limitations could “lead to a less well informed public and less well informed decision-making in these governments as they might use these laws to suppress unwanted information on the spread of the virus, for example,” said Saliba, who is co-author of a recent report entitled Free Universities: Putting the academic freedom index into action.
He said African universities should be given resources to shift to online teaching and learning. “Maybe partnerships with Western or Northern universities with more experience in these areas may help."
Guarding against erosion of academic freedoms
Professor Shannon Dea, vice-president of the Faculty Association of the University of Waterloo in Canada, said in African countries where academic freedom is already vulnerable, it will be “especially important not to let the global health crisis erode what thin protections remain”.
In Egypt, for instance, Laila Soueif, a mathematics professor at Cairo University, and Rabab El-Mahdi, an associate professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, along with two companions, were recently arrested and charged after they engaged in peaceful protest demanding that prisoners be released because of the danger of COVID-19 transmission in prison.
Dea said the universities’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic will likely “happen in phases”.
“Universities started by reacting to the emergency. Next, they will settle into a new phase of medium-term measures until we’re beyond the crisis. Finally, they will have to adapt to the new normal, whatever that looks like.
“In that first phase, some decisions had to be quick and unilateral, but it will be important in the next phases for university leaders and personnel to come back to the core principles that govern universities, including academic freedom,” Dea said.
A changed landscape
“Just as teaching looks different under COVID-19, so will academic freedom, but it is essential that we continue to vigorously defend and practise both as we move forward.”
Dea said as university budgets are hit by inevitable recession, they may also start prioritising some areas and scholars over others for financial rather than purely academic reasons.
“All of these changes, understandable as they are, pose new challenges to academic freedom.”
Professor Katrin Kinzelbach, who is based at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg Institute of Political Science and who is lead author of the Free Universities report, said that, while the systematic closure of universities was a “legitimate and justified tool for fighting the pandemic”, there was a danger that some governments may use COVID-19 as a pretext to prevent access to education or to increase political control over universities”.
“One major concern is that digital teaching formats will facilitate classroom surveillance,” she said.
The positive side
However, Kinzelbach said there was definitely a positive side: “On the other hand, I think we will also see digital innovation in the higher education sector, including an increase in collaborative, trans-national teaching formats and virtual classrooms.
“Such formats could very well increase the freedom of academic exchange across borders – and that would be a welcome development,” she said.
Kori agreed, saying the move to online education may force a move “into the computer age”.
“The tech averse are forced to face their fears and move with the rest of the world into the computer age and the impending 4IR, the fourth industrial revolution.”
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