Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa
Conseil pour le développement de la recherche en sciences sociales en Afrique
Conselho para o Desenvolvimento da Pesquisa em Ciências Sociais em África
مجلس تنمية البحوث الإجتماعية في أفريقيا

International Conference :Academic Freedom and the Social Responsibility of Academics and Researchers in Africa: What are the new challenges?

March 9-11, 2010, Oran, Algeria

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The Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) is pleased to announce the organisation of an international conference on “Academic Freedom and the Social Responsibility of Academics and Researchers in Africa: What are the new challenges?”. This conference comes within the framework of CODESRIA’s Academic Freedom Programme. It is aimed at taking stock of the progress of academic freedom in Africa over the last three decades, assessing the status of the fundamental rights of citizens in African countries and taking a look at the prospects that seem to emerge. This meeting is organised for the community of academics and researchers in Africa and the Diaspora, with particular interest in the issues of academic freedom. It will hold on March 9-11, 2010 in Oran (Algeria).

The Academic Freedom and Human Rights Programme has been established in CODESRIA since the early ‘90s. The initiatives developed have enabled it to be at the forefront of the fights that are being conducted for nearly two decades now for the defence of academic freedom and the social responsibility of African academics and researchers. The starting point of this programme was the adoption, in November 1990, of the Kampala Declaration (Uganda) which states, among others, that “Every African intellectual has the right to pursue intellectual activity, including teaching, research and dissemination of research results, without let or hindrance subject only to universally recognised principles of scientific enquiry and ethical and professional standards”. Since the Kampala Conference, CODESRIA has developed a great deal of activities, including: support to research, the publication of research results and the regular organisation of conferences in African countries, to discuss and review the constraints and progress relating to the issues of academic freedom in African universities. Besides, these conferences were often an opportunity to review the reforms undertaken or undergone over the last two decades by African higher education and research institutions.

Since the Kampala Declaration, the debate on issues pertaining to academic freedom has been prevailing in academic circles, and its importance no longer needs to be demonstrated within the African academic and research community. However, the debate on the concept of Academic Freedom or its content is still topical. While some advocate a return to more orthodox and restrictive approach/definition of academic freedom, defining it as a right and a duty that must be exercised in the university space, others apprehend academic freedom as a concept related to the exercise of citizenship and, consequently, in a perspective of defence of the freedom of expression of citizens. The question is then posed to know which option is the more relevant in the African context.

At the same time as the setting up of this programme in 1994, African political systems have experienced real advances. Many advances have been achieved in particular in the field of Human Rights, freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of the press. African societies have become much more allergic to arbitrary actions and talks. The evolution of the African public sphere towards greater tolerance for wider diversity of opinions and points of view no longer needs to be demonstrated. These spaces themselves have become plural, configuring a host of places in which citizens can freely take stands on the life of the city. The tendency for the status of Human Rights on the continent to improve is real, even though there are still many efforts to do, in particular on structural-type issues. We still witness, despite the prohibition, infringements of academic freedom by the political powers who are supposed to ensure compliance with the texts in force. Consequently, university researchers continue to be pursued for having expressed opinions that were critical or contrary to those of the powers that be or of the established social order.

Besides, over the last decades, higher education institutions and African universities have experienced, and continue to experience, deep changes. Important reforms were made at all levels of the system and in virtually all countries. Among the major elements usually considered as the causes of these deep changes and transformations are:

(i) The globalisation of the economy, trade, finances, services, labour, etc.

(ii) The increasing role of knowledge production, the dissemination and evolution of technology as a key to any development;

(iii) The tremendous progress of information and communication technologies (ICTs) and their decisive role in emergent societies based on knowledge (accompanied by progress in cognitive science and learning theories);

(iv) The new relationships that are developing between higher education, the State, the market and society as a whole;

(v) The constant social and political changes towards the protection of human rights for democratic and more equitable societies;

(vi) The evolution of demographic trends at the global level.

Globalisation and the revolution of information and communication technologies further complicates the issue of violations and standards, insofar as they provide opportunities of training and education services at a more global level. The autonomy of universities then becomes more and more relative. In this context, one can wonder whether the rules of the game, established among others by the WTO, can give an account of the complexity, or are fair for all actors involved in the process.

These global-level transformations are at the basis of a transition process that touches other subsectors and areas. This transition imposes new requirements to which universities have to respond by diversifying the subjects and the courses delivered. Higher education thus shifts from a strictly national system to an increasingly cross-border system. Consequently, in many African countries, the tendency is increasingly a decline in public education to the benefit of private education. The conditions of knowledge production in general and the rights of academics and researchers in particular remain, among so many others, the major challenges to meet.

This movement, which is not uniform, has made it possible to widen the space allocated to intellectual freedom, even if, in some countries, the hold of political power over society in general and the different forms of expression of citizenship is still so obvious.

As concerns the social responsibility of academics and researchers, there still remains a lot to be done. Indeed, when referring to the critics made by students, it appears that many academics do not fulfil their most fundamental responsibilities. The fact that some academics tend to privilege consultancy to the detriment of other responsibilities that are incumbent upon them as teachers and educators raises issues of ethics to which adequate responses must be found, so as to safeguard the interests of the institution as well as the freedoms of the faculty. The existence of a system that allows assessing teachers’ performance and the quality of their service provision is lacking in most African universities. Thus, to the old challenges that persist are added new ones, resulting from the transformations undergone by the higher education system those last two decades.

The conferences organised or carried out with support from CODESRIA generally focused on the reform of higher education in Africa. Yet, in the field, one of the major challenges is to combine university reforms with the issue of academic freedom. The reforms actually include not only a technical component, but also aspects relating to the content and format of the programmes. Therefore, better monitoring of these reforms proves to be necessary, especially from the point of view of academic freedom. That’s one of the reasons why we believe there is need to think over a widening of the competences of the academic freedom programme, to include issues related to higher education reform in Africa so as to build our capacity to understand well the reform processes.

It is important, therefore, to review the road travelled in the area of academic freedom and to draw lessons from this. This will enable the Council to assess the relevance of the instruments and strategies that were developed and put in place some fifteen years ago. The interest of such an exercise is in particular to readjust those instruments and/or adapt them to the new needs. The conference will also be an opportunity to revisit key issues related to the different academic freedom research approaches, concepts and tools and the social responsibility of academics and researchers.

To see papers presented during this conference, please click here

January 4 2010