Academic freedom in India squeezed by shift to insecure contracts

Precariously employed researchers may be less willing to rock the boat, says report

August 19, 2020
Ancient ruins of the Achipur Barood Ghar, officially known as the Achipur Powder Magazine en route Kolkata Port.
Source: iStock

A report sent to the United Nations warns that greater precarity of academic employment poses a threat to academic freedom in India, with scholars on insecure contracts potentially less willing to rock the boat with critical commentary. 

Nandini Sundar, professor of sociology at the University of Delhi, recommends in Academic Freedom in India: A Status Report 2020 that universities should better inform their leaders, faculty unions and students about freedom-of-expression rights. The report also suggests that employment contracts should include clauses protecting academic freedom, meaning that staff “will not be penalised for extramural activities”.

“It is the engagement with non-academics or the extramural activities of scholars which are most commonly contested, and also the site where academic freedom comes closest to freedom of expression,” the report says. These extramural activities could include commenting in the media or acting as experts outside of campus. 

One important influence on academic freedom is “the political economy of teaching and learning”.

“Given the increasing precaritisation of the teaching workforce (a majority of jobs are now contractual) not only is it difficult to find the time to do research, but there are also serious concerns about not alienating management, senior faculty, etc, which limit free speech,” Professor Sundar writes. 

She says that about 40 per cent of employees at her institution are contractual. 

The report cites practices such as public universities trying to impose certain “rules” on academics writing for the press or attending demonstrations. Meanwhile, some private universities require academics to get clearance before publishing research or even opinion columns.

Hiring decisions for faculty and administrators are also an example of “how conventions that upheld academic freedom and autonomy are being overturned” as appointments may be made on “non-academic grounds, such as political affiliation”. 

“The biggest threats to the academic freedom of an institution come from the appointment of poor leaders who, by dint of inexperience, are typically over-compliant with norms imposed from the outside while being susceptible to pressures of an unfamiliar kind,” the report says.  

While cases related to academic freedom have been successfully contested in India’s courts, legal challenges can be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming for teaching staff.

Professor Sundar also links freedom of expression to the level of internationalisation in a higher education system. “One of the essential components of academic freedom is academic exchange,” she writes. India is not as strong as some other Asian nations in this regard. It hosted fewer than 50,000 foreign students in 2019, while scholars from countries deemed politically unfriendly – namely China and Pakistan – may have a hard time acquiring visas.

The report also outlines broader threats to academic freedom, including an increased police presence on campus, student arrests, banned events and the communications blackout in Kashmir. 

It recommends that the government “restore and strengthen” universities’ institutional autonomy, and that global institutions include academic freedom as an indicator in rankings. 

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