Academic freedom demands break with the past, says Education Minister

30 September 2002
“ACADEMIC freedom can help us go beyond the barriers of the past and to break new ground as preservers of wisdom, guardians of knowledge," said the Minister of Education, Professor Kader Asmal. "It can nurture pioneers of ideas who breathe life into the world of work and into the realities of ordinary existence.”

Asmal was delivering the 39th TB Davie Memorial Lecture on September 23, entitled Thinking Freedom: Breaking with the Past, Planning for the Future.

However, academic freedom was not an absolute right, transcending all others, he continued. “Academic freedom, as it was understood in the 1950s by TB Davie and like-minded individuals, must be expanded in our new times to free itself from the confines of the past and be linked to other rights and other freedoms. It must become 'freedom to' develop fully the potential of our land and above all, of its people. Only if we proudly claim our African heritage will we have the confidence to build on strengths of all our people and to debate new ideas from all over the world.”

It was recognised, he said, that academic freedom could not flourish in a restrictive society where wider freedoms did not exist. Neither was academic freedom an abstract notion. “We need to go further and acknowledge that academics and institutions of higher learning must not simply concentrate on expanding knowledge and transmitting it to others; they must have the ethical and social focus which recognises the needs of society.”

This included rights of access to housing and the right to adequate health care, food, water and social security. “The very issues foregrounded at the recent World Summit on Sustainable Development should be among the concerns of academics,” he noted.

Referring to higher education in the wider context, Asmal tackled the “proliferation” of foreign institutions in South Africa. “Some private providers are concerned with new markets rather than contributing to national goals. Unregulated links with the market threaten to shake the foundations of our education system. We risk being shackled to new chains that are beyond the control of the nation state. Freedom will remain elusive, a mere dream in the global scheme of things.”

He said that as World Bank policies in the 1980s and 1990s had provided mainly for the support of primary and secondary education, these had also led to the decay of large sections of higher education institutions and the erosion of HE in Africa. “While the World Bank analysts in their 2003 report have reviewed their focus, clearly the damage has already been done and changes in policy will take time to make a difference on the ground.”

In such circumstances the country needed clear strategies to preserve academic freedom as part and parcel of its public universities, “to strengthen our institutions in terms of the quality of their teaching and their research, and to be responsive to broader societal needs”.

Reflecting on the institutional landscape, Asmal said current thinking was aimed at addressing the challenges arising from the needs of a society engaging its democratic life. “This national system must respond to the requirements of a society emerging out of decades of underdevelopment and inequality.

“There is no doubt that the academic freedom accorded to our universities comes with a corresponding social responsibility. The training that takes place at our HE institutions must also serve to nurture socially responsible individuals whose concern must be for community and national development.”

Asmal also alluded to the importance of employment equity programmes within the HE sector, ensuring that these institutions did not “remain frozen in the past”. “The proposed restructuring of HE through the establishment of new centres of learning aims to break with this apartheid past that still haunts us,” he added. “The integration of institutions will go a long way towards ensuring that students from all over the country – begin to see themselves as equals and as individuals who wish to make a contribution to society through their collective efforts.”

In preparing for the future, South African universities faced several main challenges, including:
  • The production of excellence and achievement of equity;
  • The creation of new institutional cultures and the articulation of the values of a new society;
  • The search for new ways of thinking and seeing, the creation of new areas of study and the expansion of “the imaginary and real possibilities” of life outside HE institutions;
  • The provision of “spaces for diverse voices”, allowing for pure research to take place unhindered and go hand-in-hand with applied research;
  • The realisation of social, cultural, civil and political rights.
“Thinking freedom means that we go beyond our pasts and do all that can be done to open the doors and windows to the future, especially to value the unsung, the unhealed in society and to change the story,” he concluded.

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