Academic Freedom Index 2020 Report and Higher Education System and Autonomy

Academic Freedom Index 2020 (AFI) developed by the V-Dem Institute of the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.

Finding of Report

  • India has a low score in a new global index of academic freedom, a performance that mirrors its poor ranking on global indices of media freedom and is likely to heighten concerns government’s attitude towards constitutionally protected liberties.
  • The index proposes a score for each country to help determine the level of academic freedom its universities and academic centres really enjoy
  • According to this analysis, India has an AFI of 0.352, comparable to the scores of Saudi Arabia and Libya.
  • Curiously, countries that scored higher than India include Pakistan (0.554), Brazil (0.466), Ukraine (0.422), Somalia (0.436) and Malaysia (0.582).
  • Uruguay and Portugal top the list with scores of 0.971 each, followed closely by Latvia and Germany. At the bottom are North Korea (0.011), Eritrea (0.015), Bahrain (0.039) and Iran (0.116).

What are the components of Index ?

1. Freedom to research and teach
2. Freedom of academic exchange and dissemination
3. Institutional autonomy
4. Campus integrity
5. Freedom of academic and cultural expression
6. Constitutional protection of academic freedom
7. International legal commitment to academic freedom under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
8. Existence of universities

Academic Freedom Index 2020 Report

Indian Higher education Expansion

  • According to the All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE), 2018-19,
  • India has 993 universities, 39,931 colleges and 10,725 standalone institutions.
    • Of these, 385 universities and 78% of the colleges are privately managed while 394 universities and 60.53% of the colleges are located in rural areas.
  • The enrolment in higher education in India is 37.4 million persons (19.2 million males and 18.2 million females).
  • The Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) in higher education in India is 26.3% (18-23 years).
  • Certain categories of citizens have less access to higher education – for instance, Scheduled Castes have a GER of 23% and Scheduled Tribes have a GER of 17.2% as compared to the national GER of 26.3%.
  • Muslims constitute only 5.2% of the student population, compared to their overall percentage of about 14.2% in the population.

Regulation on Higher education

  • Public and private universities have different kinds of regulatory structures, incentives and even legal guarantees (for e.g. minority institutions and private universities are not bound by quotas for affirmative action on caste grounds for students and faculty).
  • The state universities in India are dependent on their respective state governments for selection of leaders, funding and other regulatory issues.
  • Many private colleges are for-profit professional oriented ventures run by local business families, and not likely to encourage critical extra or intra-mural discussion that might invoke questions of academic freedom. 

Legal framework for academic freedom in India

  • Article – 19(1)(a), the Indian Constitution guarantees to all citizens “freedom of speech and expression,” while Art – 19(1)(g) ensures “the right to practise any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade or business.”
  • Fundamental rights charter of the Constitution could be invoked to defend academic freedom, such as the Right to Life (Article 21), which has been expansively interpreted to mean life with dignity.
  • Articles 14, 15, and 16 – Academic freedom involves expanding the scope of viewpoints that may be brought into the academy (whether of women, minorities or exploited groups like scheduled castes and tribes), one could invoke Articles 14, 15, and 16 which provide for equality, prohibit discrimination and assure equality of opportunity in public employment
  • Fundamental Duty – Under Part IV-A (51-A, h) to “develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of enquiry and reform’
  • Art – 51- A (j) to “strive towards excellence in all spheres of individual and collective activity so that the nation constantly rises to higher levels of endeavour and achievement”.

How restrictions on academic freedom happening in India?

Restrictions on and subversion of institutional autonomy.

  • The most recent policy document, the National Education Policy (NEP) of 2020, too recognises the importance of academic freedom and autonomy, but the fine print of what this ‘autonomy’ will mean is still to be spelled out.
  • The restrictions on institutional autonomy are affecting different spheres such as the selection of university leaders or vice chancellors, selection of faculty, selection of students, framing of courses, and several other aspects of the university.

Subversion of faculty selection

  • The case of faculty selection is being included here as an illustrative example of how conventions that upheld academic freedom and autonomy are being overturned, through the increasing appointment of university leaders and faculty on non-academic grounds, such as political affiliation.

Political appointments to university leadership

Given the size of Indian universities and the several pressures from teaching, student, and staff unions, as well as from state and national politics, the best-intentioned vice chancellor faces serious problems.

In many Instances it is found that Vice chancellors themselves are increasingly political appointees, as are the heads of various bodies set up to promote research in different fields.

Institutional harassment of faculty and students who dissent

In the case of students who dissent, universities are routinely resorting to rustication, explusion, and withholding of scholarships. In an emblematic case from Hyderabad Central University, a Dalit student, Rohit Vemula

Academic Freedom Index 2020

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