Understanding Academic Freedom

If you are in the field of education you would be very familiar with the term academic freedom. It was designed to give teachers the freedom to differ in their ideology, in their thought process and to challenge the existing wisdom without fear of persecution by administrators and repercussions on their careers. This indeed was how it was until the 1960s even in India and teachers at that time were held in very high esteem both by students and the society at large.

Over time teachers started falling from grace and their credibility started to be questioned by one and all. To some extent, we can blame the high level of governmental interference in an educational institution as being the driver for this shift. But the teachers themselves have to take some of the blame for drifting away from their mission as teachers.

So, what is academic freedom in the modern world?

Today, the term academic freedom has been used, misused, and abused to the extent that it has never been done before in the history of Higher Education in India. Teachers have used it to not be in the workplace, to not teach, to have the freedom to abuse the system. How does having the freedom to be in an office or not being in office relate to academic freedom? When questions are asked about their teaching they say my academic freedom is being questioned. I know of a lot of teachers in Higher Education who will not prepare for their class, they just go and teach what they know; they are unfair to their students and are not able to get over their ego. They will even tell students that don’t you want good grades to make them fall in line as per their requirements. These are all instances of those kinds of people who should not be in the field of higher education. These are teachers by default and not by design. They are destroying the whole system and they need to be controlled to ensure that our higher education system begins to gradually move a higher level of achievement. Having said that, I know that the shortage of teachers in higher education is also a reason for such a shift. Coupled with this is the fact that we have a lot of people who have not been successful in the industry getting into teaching. I call this as the residual impact. We also have a lot of people who want to become teachers after they have completed their innings in the industry.

If we look at the public sector, we find a more alarming situation. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that 20 per cent of the University teachers are making the system function and it is on their shoulders that the whole system rests and they are the real teachers. The rest of them are politicians with the face of the teacher.

The academic freedom has not produced any breakthrough research nor has it created any new knowledge. Yes in some of the centres of excellence like the IIC, BARC, TIFR there have been great levels of contribution but they are the only exceptions to the rule. So what has the academic freedom given to us, how has it improved the condition of our universities and colleges. I will argue that it has resulted in a decline in our educational standards because it has lost its true meaning. Today we have reached a point where if there is any move to put in place a system which demands accountability from the teachers, it is opposed by the teacher’s unions.

I believe that Indian Higher Education will continue to suffer setbacks till the teachers in Universities and Colleges begin to understand that a job of a teacher is not just to teach, but it is the task of building of a Nation. I consider this task more important than the task of a CEO of a large company. In a large company the job of the CEO is to enhance the interest of the stakeholders of the company. In the case of education, it is the interest of a Nation by training the next generation.

Once teachers understand their role in the larger context of Nation Building, we will begin to see a major transformation that will take place in Higher Education in India. I believe that only teachers have the capacity to change the direction of the decline in our standards in higher education. If we don’t rise, we will regret this as our children will not be ready for the world that they will live in. I do hope that the task of Nation Building has to be entrusted to the teachers and they have to take the task seriously.

Prof. Kamlesh Misra