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The Academic Freedom and Internationalisation Working Group’s (AFIWG) model code of conduct is designed to embed more transparency and accountability in the UK universities’ international activities. 

New code of conduct calls for universities to do more to protect academic freedom in their international partnerships

UK higher education institutions should be more transparent about their international partnerships and more accountable to their staff and students in order to protect academic freedom, experts have said.

Academics from universities around the UK have produced a new model code of conduct for adoption by universities and other relevant professional bodies, in close consultation with staff, students and campus trade unions.

They have warned that although international links can benefit universities and researchers, they can also threaten the academic freedom of UK-based academics and students and their academic partners involved in transnational activity.

Surveillance, suspensions, the loss of jobs, persecution, coercion of relatives, prosecution, and detention have been reported to the group. And it continues work surveying researchers and students about their experiences.

The experts behind the model code of conduct want the higher education sector to do more. It should openly identify, and address risks posed to academic freedom and the academic community arising from international activity.

The Academic Freedom and Internationalisation Working Group’s (AFIWG) model code of conduct is designed to embed more transparency and accountability in the UK universities’ international activities. This is to ensure that concerns about risks to academic freedom associated with them are heard, understood and mitigated.

The model code of conduct calls on UK higher education institutions to consult in advance with academics. The group states that academics are too often frozen out of partnership decisions. And institutions should put in place transparent processes to review changes to risks over time, and report publicly every year on their efforts to protect academic freedom internationally.

The working group brings together academic specialists in the study of Education, Human Rights, International Relations, Law and Sociology from the University of Edinburgh, University of Exeter, University of London School of Advanced Study, Goldsmiths University of London, London School of Economics, King’s College London, University of Lincoln and the University of Oxford. It has drafted the model code of conduct with guidance from representatives from Scholars at Risk, the Council for At-Risk Academics and the All-Party Parliamentary Human Rights Group (PHRG).

The code also stresses the need to consider academic freedom when decisions are being made about the receipt of new donations and funding streams. It says substantive due diligence should be carried out on foreign funders, and state and corporate partners.

The code asks UK higher education institutions to establish better mechanisms for academics and students to report concerns confidentially about their work being interfered with or pressures leading to self-censorship, including by designating an individual at the institution people can go to. It also recommends the creation of a new ombudsperson for the UK higher education sector as a whole to deal with the most serious cases.

The code outlines specific support to be given by UK higher education institutions to academics and students at risk or punished for exercising their academic freedom. This includes assistance with visa and asylum applications for those who have a well-founded fear of persecution, and hosting academics and their families through programmes such as those run by the Council for At-Risk Academics (Cara) and Scholars at Risk (SAR). The code also says universities should advocate publicly and privately on behalf of members of the academic community who are imprisoned, ‘disappeared’ or face other sanctions.

AFIWG member Professor John Heathershaw, from the University of Exeter, said: “Higher education is an international endeavour; this has been positive in helping universities and academics across the world cooperate, and encouraged donations and resources to be given by UK institutions and government to other nations.

“But it can also undermine academic freedom and the safety of academics because some governments want to curtail intellectual inquiry and dissent, directly or indirectly, by preventing academics and students from expressing views, as well as teaching and conducting research, on topics deemed to be sensitive.”

Professor Eva Pils from King’s College London, another AFIWG member, added: “Academic internationalisation is in so many ways vitally important, but risks to academic freedom can come from a range of actors whose domestic legal systems fail to protect this basic right. Such risks can be exacerbated by some forms of transnational collaboration that lead to dependencies, including foreign funding arrangements and research and education partnerships.

“It is crucial for everyone involved in the UK Higher Education sector to acknowledge that there are risks to academic freedom and to work collectively and transparently to mitigate and address them. If this can be achieved, then the internationalisation of higher education and research in the UK can be overwhelmingly positive for all those involved.”

Date: 12 October 2020

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