Principled message of freedom for universities

Unesco group calls for global ombudsman and index to bolster academic values, writes Phil Baty

June 18, 2009

An international ombudsman to uphold the "principles and values" of higher education should be established alongside a global index of academic freedom.

These are the key recommendations made by senior figures in European education who gathered in Romania's capital Bucharest last month to attend the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation's Forum on Higher Education.

The proposals are made in the "Bucharest Message", which will be submitted for validation to Unesco's 2009 World Conference on Higher Education in Paris next month.

In light of the global financial crisis, it states that "higher education and research are now entering a new stage of development", and calls for the restoration of the central role universities once played in supporting democracy, culture and social cohesion.

The message proposes that universities adopt codes of conduct on ethical teaching and research practices, and ensure that "civic values, democracy, justice and tolerance" are institutionally embedded to become "integral learning outcomes for all students".

But the key recommendations are the creation of an international ombudsman and a global index to rank nations according to their commitment to university autonomy and academic freedom.

The Bucharest Message says: "Institutions of higher education promote values essential for democratic society, as well as for the cultural development of society and the personal development of individuals.

"For this very reason, higher education cannot be separated from values and ethics. They are, together with academic freedom and institutional autonomy, key tenets of higher education."

But it adds: "The recent financial crisis has illustrated that a lack of such qualities and competencies can bring about overwhelming negative consequences.

"Furthermore, only with academic freedom and ... autonomy are higher education institutions able to strive for truth and further knowledge in order to contribute to ... sustainable development."

Paths to legitimacy

To protect these core tenets of the academy, Unesco calls for the establishment of an international ombudsman with a remit to "resolve conflicts related to principles and values of higher education".

Bastian Baumann, secretary general of Italy's Magna Charta Observatory, who led the debate on "values" at the meeting, said that discussions focused on the need for an ombudsman, rather than the details of how it would work.

The question of its powers and remit "depends on where such an ombudsman would be established", he said.

"If it had official powers, it would have to be created by, for example, Unesco, on a sound legal basis. If it was created by a different body, it would need to derive its legitimacy from an endorsement by the global higher education community.

"The powers in the latter case would not be of a legal nature, but rather an ethical and social one. They would be derived from the general endorsement of ministries, universities, students and their organisations, in which they would state their willingness to co-operate with the ombudsman."

Professor Baumann said that the ombudsman's need for independence could prevent it from being established within Unesco, which is an intergovernmental organisation.

"Given the sheer volume of possible cases, it would also be limited to severe violations of the fundamental principles and values of academia," he said.

However, he added that disputes between universities and public authorities could also be tackled.

Index-linked freedom

The Bucharest Message also calls for international support for plans to set up a global index on academic freedom.

Professor Baumann said that the index would "provide transparent information about obstacles to academic freedom in specific countries".

This could result in a ranked table, similar to Transparency International's Global Corruption Barometer, he said.

As many in the international higher education sector feel threatened by the prospect of years of economic austerity, the message also warns against narrowing the focus of university research to tackle purely financial problems.

"The support of all areas of study and research needs to be ensured, thus not only focusing on areas of immediate commercial interest," the message states.

Jan Sadlak, director of Unesco-CEPES, Unesco's European Centre for Higher Education, said it was vital that the plans be adopted at the conference in July.

phil.baty@tsleducation.com

BUILD BRIDGES, NOT BARRIERS

The international economic downturn is likely to inflict long-term damage on the quality of higher education, Unesco delegates have warned.

In their "Bucharest Message" to July's World Conference on Higher Education, they said that the recession is "changing the context in which higher education will function in the years to come".

The message adds that "cost-cutting measures" are adversely affecting academic staff's employment conditions and professional development.

"The consequences of such measures could lead to a long-lasting negative impact on the quality of higher education," it states.

The message adds that now more than ever, the notion of "academic moral solidarity" should become the norm and a source for seeking new paths to international collaboration.

It identifies sub-Saharan Africa as an area in particular need of support, and warns against the dangers of "academic protectionism".

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