Call to protect academic freedom in overseas partnerships

New code of conduct says universities should adopt procedures for confidential reporting of threats to freedom and safety as a result of international collaboration

October 12, 2020

British universities should do more to protect academic freedom when establishing international partnerships, including consulting with scholars in advance and publicly advocating for academics at risk abroad, according to a new code of conduct drawn up by UK academics.

The document calls for institutions to agree and implement measures to protect academic freedom and the academic community in transnational collaborations “from the outset” and for these “measures to be monitored and their effectiveness in mitigating risk evaluated on a regular basis”.

It says universities should adapt mitigation measures if they prove ineffective or urgently review collaboration if there is “imminent risk to life, liberty or the personal security of members of the academic community”.

Universities should also consult academics before establishing new international partnerships and should report publicly every year on their efforts to protect academic freedom in these collaborations, according to the code.

The code, which was produced by the Academic Freedom and Internationalisation Working Group, which comprises eight scholars across the UK, says it is important for the higher education sector to “openly acknowledge” the risks of internationalisation and to “allow itself to be held accountable for its actions” so this activity can continue to be “overwhelmingly positive”.

Last year, Matthew Hedges, a PhD student specialising in Middle Eastern politics at Durham University, who was sentenced to life in prison on spying charges in the United Arab Emirates, told Times Higher Education that there was a “clinical lack of organisation” or support regarding the preparation of scholars conducting research in dangerous places and that universities might be failing to properly address the risks because of their close commercial relationships with repressive regimes.

The new code asks institutions to adopt procedures for confidential reporting of threats to academic freedom and the safety of scholars arising from transnational collaborations, including a guarantee that there will be no retaliatory action against those reporting concerns or making complaints.

The code also calls for universities to develop an internal emergency response to address situations where life or liberty is in imminent danger and to advocate publicly and privately on academics’ behalf when they are imprisoned, “disappeared” or face other sanctions.

Institutions signing the agreement would also need to designate an individual with internal institutional responsibility for overseeing and engaging on the protection of scholarly freedom in international partnerships, and to support the appointment of an independent ombudsperson on academic freedom in the context of internationalisation.

The document also includes a commitment to provide training on academic freedom before scholars conduct fieldwork abroad and include academic freedom criteria when considering the receipt of gifts, donations and other funding to support transactional collaboration.

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