In any society, freedom, democracy and development are all closely linked. Neither democracy nor development can be achieved without civic right and freedom
By Sada Reddi
“It was in order to allow the university to function free from political interference and to fulfil its mission that its autonomy was guaranteed right from the start. When the University Provisional Bill was being debated in the Legislative Assembly in 1965, there were concerns raised about the autonomy of the university. In fact clause 17 of the bill provided for the minister to give directions to the university. Responding to these concerns and to ensure the autonomy of the university, the Minister of Education, Veerasamy Ringadoo, decided at Committee Stage to delete clause 17…”
The preposterous decision of the University of Mauritius to bring before a disciplinary committee Ragen Narsinghen, an academic from the law department, has shocked the whole country. What he is being blamed for amounts to exercising his academic freedom to speak on a number on public issues. Academics in the past and even today have always given their views publicly on many controversial issues, for truth is always multi-dimensional. It is a well-established practice at the University that academics can exercise their academic freedom, for this is grounded in the nature of their work and forms part of the mission of the University to increase and develop new knowledge for the benefit of students and for society in general.
It was in order to allow the university to function free from political interference and to fulfil its mission that its autonomy was guaranteed right from the start. When the University Provisional Bill was being debated in the Legislative Assembly in 1965, there were concerns raised about the autonomy of the university. In fact clause 17 of the bill provided for the minister to give directions to the university. Responding to these concerns and to ensure the autonomy of the university, the Minister of Education, Veerasamy Ringadoo, decided at Committee Stage to delete clause 17 and was congratulated for doing so by Maurice Lesage, a member of the opposition. Since then, the autonomy of the University has been well safeguarded.
It was the consensus of the time that the University of Mauritius became an autonomous institution, and like universities all over the world, it provided its academic staff and students with the freedom to fulfil its mission – to discuss, debate and contest any views and create new knowledge in their search for truth. New knowledge in any field – whether in arts, science, social science, law and politics – can only be created when there is a perpetual questioning of received knowledge.
It has thus become a matter routine for academics and students to actively engage in expressing, debating and contesting ideas from any source. At a time when our universities are making great efforts to develop creativity and encourage students and academics to become innovative so as to contribute to the development of the country, it is an aberration in the policy of the university to clamp down on academic freedom.
There have always been criticisms that academics do not engage themselves enough in society and the university should not be an ivory tower. Yet, when academics come forward to put forward their views and ideas to the public, there are attempts made to muzzle them. Nowadays there are changes taking place in the role of universities. New concepts, ideas and research findings generated by universities are no longer confined to learned journals but are disseminated into the wider society. Academics are regular speakers and commentators in the media. There are conferences and workshops where they are invited to participate actively. They are respected and honoured. In the recent Honours list awarded on Independence and Republic day was a Mauritian historian, an academic from Oxford University. One of the criteria for promotion at the university includes the academic’s contribution to society.
It must be strange that a university that has academic freedom as its core value should take the unfortunate step to undermine its credibility and tarnish its image. This is happening at a time when the university is trying very hard to develop excellence in research and wants to attract foreign students. It must be extremely embarrassing for academics and particularly for the Vice-Chancellor to have to carry the burden of guilt for being unwittingly perhaps a party to a decision that is a blot not only on the prestige of the university and an ineffaceable stain on one’s academic career. No one would like to go down in the pages of history of the University as having been among the diggers of academic freedom.
Perhaps the decision was taken by one or two people who may not have grasped the importance of the university and its wider role in developing the values of a free society. It is not too late to remedy the situation for academic freedom is intrinsically linked to our fundamental rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights in our constitution, namely the freedom of speech and thought. It is a human right that is cherished by the whole nation.
The widespread support that Mr Narsinghen has received across the nation is testimony of the importance of his struggle for the country. Students from several universities, academics, trade unionists, NGOs, prominent opinion leaders in our society, the media and Members of the National Assembly were all present last Monday to express their solidarity and support. This suggests the issue is of national importance. It is not simply an academic fighting for his academic freedom. It symbolizes the wider struggle of a nation to safeguard its democratic rights. Like in 1984, when journalists were not only protesting against the amendments to the Newspapers and Periodicals act for their survival but mostly at the attempt to stifle the freedom of the press. Later this amendment was abrogated.
Just like press freedom, academic freedom is an essential ingredient in a democratic society. We have been reminded by no other person than Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize winner, that freedom and democracy are essential elements for the development of society. Political and civil rights have an instrumental and constructive role in the development of a country. Freedom provides opportunities to draw the attention of government forcefully to the general needs of society and government’s response to these needs does make a difference. Have we not heard academics and many other people bringing to the attention of the government numerous problems facing the people during the lockdown? And have we not seen the authorities responding to these grievances with some solutions?
In any society, freedom, democracy and development are all closely linked. Neither democracy nor development can be achieved without civic right and freedom. Freedom and democracy contribute significantly in identifying and tackling problems and issues. People exercise their civil rights – criticizing, protesting and demanding solutions. Government and the authorities respond to such pressures and such protesting does make a real difference.
Let us hope that the decision makers have by now realized the harm they are inflicting on the University of Mauritius by lowering its prestige among higher education institutions and many university associations across the world and that academic freedom matters. We hope they will be prompt enough to salvage the damage to the reputation and prestige of the University of Mauritius – and restore academic freedom.
* Published in print edition on 26 June 2020