Foreign academics ‘less likely’ to speak up for academic freedom

Scholar warns that rising numbers of international university staff in Singapore could ‘make the academy more conservative’

February 6, 2019
Singapore army
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The hiring of international academics at universities in Singapore could reinforce the country’s lack of academic freedom and “make the academy more conservative”, a scholar has claimed.

Internationalisation – in particular the establishment of international research collaborations and the recruitment of foreign staff – has been hailed by some as a way for the West to exert a positive influence on academia in authoritarian countries, by improving teaching and research practices and increasing academic freedom.

But Linda Lim, a Singaporean emeritus professor at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, told Times Higher Education that the opposite could be true in the case of Singapore.

She said that some young scholars were leaving the country to work in nations such as the US and the UK that have more open higher education systems.

At the same time, some foreign scholars are attracted to work in Singapore partly because of their universities’ high salaries. They may feel “much more constrained” in expressing themselves than local scholars as a result of their visa status, which in turn may “make the academy more conservative than it would otherwise be…unwittingly reinforcing the loss or lack of academic freedom”, she said.

The share of international academic staff at the National University of Singapore is 61 per cent, according to the latest THE World University Rankings data, up from 57 per cent in 2016. Foreign scholars also make up 55 per cent of all academic staff at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, up from 53 per cent three years ago.

Professor Lim added that “the role of the academic under authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes is actually more important” than it is in democratic countries.

“The fewer other people there are who can speak up, the more important it is for those who still have some protection from their professional continue doing so,” she said.

In Singapore, the term “OB marker”, short for “out-of-bounds marker”, is used to denote what topics and views are permissible for public discussion, and for participation in civil society activities. But Professor Lim said that these markers “shift over time” and while “everyone knows that there are OB markers, nobody knows what they are at any particular point of time”.

“When the OB markers are known, people know how to self-censor ‘close to the line’. When they don’t know what the OB markers are, they may be more conservative than is in fact necessary,” she said.

Last month, Professor Lim and other scholars raised concerns over the level of freedom of expression in the country after an online article that included critical comments about the country’s two leading universities was removed following a legal challenge.

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