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June 15, 2021
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Academic Freedom in Public Universities A lived experience in Wollo University, Ethiopia

By Yidnekachew Ewnetu

  • Introduction. 3
  • Challenges of Academic freedom.. 4
  • 2.1.       Failure to be autonomous. 4
    2.2.       Political activities. 5
    2.3.       Forced propaganda networks. 6
    2.4.       Weakened teachers’ association. 63. Repression of academic staffs rights. 7
    4. Consequences of underrated academic freedom.. 8Conclusion. 10

    1.    Introduction

    The legislation of Wollo University states that freedom to teach and freedom to learn without interference is the basic right given to academic staffs and students. The importance of academic freedom is perceived in relation to the functions of universities. The three major functions of the university, as mentioned in its legislation are training skilled labor force, conducting researches and providing community services. (Wollo University, 2011) To fulfill these diverse educational and social functions, universities need to have a commitment to the spirit of truth and possess academic freedom.

    Academic freedom seems a simple concept, and in essence it is, but it is also difficult to define. From medieval times, academic freedom has meant the freedom of the professor to teach without external control in his or her area of expertise, and it has implied the freedom of the student to learn. The pursuit of truth in universities requires adherence to fundamental principles of intellectual integrity and responsibility (Downs, 2009). Like other accepted freedoms, academic freedom requires individuals, authorities and government not only to allow scholar work without restraint but also prevent any interference with this freedom. In addition, academic freedom seems to require something more, that the society provides conditions in which new ideas can be generated, nurtured and freely exchanged.

    Academic freedom is not only for individuals, instead it is important to look for the freedom of Universities as an institution. Institutional academic freedom protects universities from interference by government, a right that applies to the community of scholars, not to individual faculty. It also reserves to the university itself selection of faculty and students, as well as issues in curriculum such as the content of the syllabus in each class or level. (Rostan, 2010)

    Many would argue that a fully developed higher education system cannot exist without academic freedom. However, the truth is academic freedom is by no means secure worldwide. And yet, surprisingly, academic freedom is not high on the international agenda. The topic is seldom discussed at academic conferences, and does not appear on the declarations and working papers of agencies such as UNESCO or the World Bank (Burgan 1999, pp. 45–47). Those who are responsible for leading and funding higher education are far too concerned with finance and management issues. More attention needs to be given to the mission and values of the university, for without academic freedom; universities cannot achieve their potential nor fully contribute to the emerging knowledge-based society.

    This paper seeks to explore the challenges of academic freedom and the consequences of its absence. It is meant to open discussion among academes. The paper is written based on a lived experience from an Ethiopian public university, Wollo. The writer has worked in the university as a lecturer and academic unit head for more than four years.


    2.    Challenges of Academic freedom

    In a less developed country like Ethiopia, education is believed to be the core stone for the way out of severe poverty. Meanwhile, education coverage and education quality are always challenges in the Ethiopian education system. The current regime has accomplished a positive change in terms of coverage.  More than 25 new public Universities have been introduced in the last 20 years causing a significant improvement in national student intake capacity. But it is believed to happen at the expense of education quality.

    Both the government and universities themselves have admitted that education quality is under question mark. The problem is that it is not yet possible to understand and openly speak the root causes of the continually declining education quality, as measured in terms of the graduates’ quality. It is totally wrong to justify this as a normal phenomenon resulting from prioritizing coverage over quality. Even though limited facilities and staff shortage are two of the most frequently mentioned factors affecting quality, they are not the only ones. The reality is these factors have covered another critical cause of lower education quality, which is absence of academic freedom.

    More than 98 percent of higher learning institutions in Ethiopia are owned by the government. The Ethiopian government has shown a growing interest to have full control over Universities, mainly for political reason. This ambitious interest has put academic freedom at risk. As in many other countries, governmental power has been used to turn the educational institutions into a system that largely serves the interests of state power-holders. The intent to do so emanates from the fear of the government looking for the historical roles of universities in political movements.

    Wollo University, like any other Ethiopian public Universities, is facing a serious challenge in its commitment to maintain academic freedom mainly due to unlimited involvement of the government for non-academic reasons. Some of the important challenges are described below in detail.

    2.1.         Failure to be autonomous

    Ideally, Wollo University is an autonomous university which relies on the government only for budget. But in reality, it is observed that the university has lost its autonomous power over internal matters in many circumstances. Irrespective of the administrative structure which is symbolically displayed, the super power over the university is held by the Board Director who is named by the ruling government.

    Director of the board is assigned directly by the country’s Prime Minister based on political merit. The board has become authorized to approve the nomination of the University president, vice president and college dean positions. This gives the government an arm length access to drive the University in whatever way they want to move. Hence, academic freedom has become a charity which is given to academicians based on the goodwill of the ruling party.

    The implication of this is that the security of academic freedom in Wollo University depends on the political stability of the ruling government. The following evidences are presented to support the above discussion;

            • Since the establishment of the University in 2006, five and seven different persons have come to the University presidency and vice presidency power, respectively. The university community doesn’t have any information on how and why it happened. It was all led by one director of Board.
            • The top university managerial positions are all taken by political merit, not academic merit.
            • The university’s student enrollment capacity is determined by the Board. Since its’ establishment, the university keeps accepting large number of students irrespective of available facilities and personnel. As a result, a single dormitory which was built for four is accommodating 16 students; 125 students are sitting in a classroom which was meant for a maximum of 50 students.
            • So far, the government is a sole funder for all researches made by the university. As a result, the Board has engaged itself in filtering research themes made by academic staffs. It has been observed that only themes which get the will of the board will be funded.
            • New study programs are also approved by the board led team without a thorough need assessment study.

    In addition to the above formal involvements, the board has also a strong power in the recruitment and promotion of academic staffs.

    2.2.         Political activities

    It is not a secret that all of the four major parties, constituting the ruling party, are operating inside the main campus of the university. These parties share office and budget from the university, but have nothing to do with its mission. Instead, their presence is against the secularism values of the university.

    Though it is not clear how and why these parties are operating inside the campus, the university community has observed them doing the following activities;

            • Mobilizing and enrolling new party members
            • Election campaigns
            • Spying any individual or group political movements and opposing thoughts
            • Creating and organizing ethnic identities and weakening any unity against the government or the ruling party
            • Led the one to five pairing network of academic staffs and students

    Those are some of the roles they are observed doing, but it is hard to predict what they are doing. In addition to their illegal presence, this is a very serious matter which creates insecurity among the academic staff.

    The party delegates have also seen doing a dividing task among the elite group. They do their best to avoid any unity of the university community which could aim any protest or demonstration against the government. Whenever they watch this kind of moves, they use ethnicity and religion as a means to crack the unity and avoid the risk.

    2.3.         Forced propaganda networks

    Even though it was meant for education quality, it is understood that ‘one to five pairing of staffs and students’ is a high level political tool managed by the University Board. One to five pairing is a peer group where one leader and five members will constitute. It has an operation guide which sets rules on how it should operate. As a cover, it includes educational assignments, but it also includes a regular and mandatory discussion schedules on topics which will be cascaded from the board. The topics are usually politically geared and have nothing to do with academics.

    Ten peer groups will have a leader who is assigned by the board. The leader regularly collects report from each group and channel up to the board. Despite of strong resistance by the academic staffs and students, the board is not yet flexible to dismantle this chain as it is found to be a reliable spying means. This is happening not only in Wollo University, but also in all Ethiopian public universities.

    2.4.         Weakened teachers’ association

    Universities are expected to be exemplary in introducing and exercising modern and proven approaches and working culture. One of the many which could make universities exemplary is practicing democratic administration system. This could have been achieved by encouraging inclusiveness and implementing participatory strategies. Establishing and strengthening teachers’ association is one means to ensure that teachers are participating and contributing enough to the university administration, and living comfortably. Wollo University is still unable to form teachers association and allow them exercise their rights and responsibilities.

    The failure to form the association is mainly due to a strong resistance of the University board. The board itself has nominated a teacher representative to participate in the university’s senate, and spoke as teachers are delegated in different decision making processes. Teachers have frequently organized themselves and requested the university to get a legal entity as an association, but the university has denied it by responding nothing. Instead, it is observed that those individuals who took the leadership role in submitting the request are facing a lot of personal challenges.

    As a result, teachers have become voiceless and failed to speak for their rights as a group. Experiences have shown that acting individually is no more working. Unless teachers are represented by a formally organized association, their right and academic freedom will remain at risk.

    2.5.        Repression of academic staffs rights

    Politics and education are two different concepts. Off course, education has a great contribution on politics through generating good politicians and political institutions can help also education through providing materials and designing curriculum. University teachers and students might have their own political opinion as an individual and as a professional; it has to be respected and to be protected by the rule of law. But in the reality, teachers with opposite political views are exposed to different problems in Wollo. Criticizing any program or action of the current regime is considered as a crime. In the past years, teachers who were member of opposition political parties in Wollo are sent to jail in fabricated reasons. Others who spoke their political opinions openly are facing a lot of warnings, discrimination and administrative bureaucracies. As a result, many senior teachers have left their job fearing the ever worsening repression and academic freedom violations.

    Like other accepted freedoms, academic freedom requires individuals, authorities and government not only to allow scholar work without restraint but also prevent any interference with this freedom. In addition, academic freedom seems to require something more, that the society provides conditions in which new ideas can be generated, nurtured and freely exchanged.



    3.    Consequences of underrated academic freedom

    One thing known for sure is that the current regime is not facing politically active student movements like the former Ethiopian regimes, as a result of the super control over universities. This might have implication on the country’s political system, but this is not the focus of this paper. The following section discusses what is happening in the university as a result of unlimited violation of academic principles, and unreserved interruptions of the government on internal matters. The list includes only problems which have actually happened in the past years.

            1. Academic matters has got less attention

    The university has identified ‘maintaining one to five pairing network’ as its core goal for the past and coming years, but it is not yet clear how this becomes convincingly linked to the three major pillars of the university; training, research and community service. As a result of political involvements in the university administration, teachers and students are losing focus on their regular duties. Academic calendars have been frequently revised to accommodate political meetings and events. For instance in the year 2013, the university has forced teachers to cover 16 week courses within 9 weeks only. Students are being forced to participate in one to five pairing networks and discuss government agendas at the expense of their time for studying. To reduce students’ resistance for this approach, the government has pushed universities to lower pass marks and let students graduate with lower scores.

            1. Lower job satisfaction of academic staffs

    The super control of the government has created extra burdens to academic staffs. The staffs also feel insecure when they fail to comply with the extra tasks. It is observed that those who resisted this have faced a lot of challenges as a consequence. It is not a secret that staffs are not treated fairly; rather the university management is not afraid to discriminate staffs based on their membership and participation in the ruling party. In the previous years, university professorship was one of the leverage and satisfying careers in the country. But, in recent times everyone except losers are losing interest to join the career. The ever growing staff turnover is an evidence for this argument. In the college of Agriculture only, 12 lecturers have left their job within a single year, 2013. Some of them are left their job for a less paying job, looking for a better working environment.

            1. Biased research themes

    As a sole funder for university researches, the government has get a full power to filter and discriminate research themes based on non-scientific merits. Any research grant request made by a staff has to pass through a review to be approved by the vice president. It is obvious that the university has a limited budget and it is a must to prioritize. The problem is the way the university favor one research topic to the other. Evidences shows that the university wants research to be made on themes which will magnify and promote the accomplishments of the government, any theme which points gaps or weaknesses will most likely get rejected. A lot of debates will happen at lower review levels, but it is observed that there are no excuses for topics which are expected to pose a threat on the government. This approach is a very silly one which is not expected from a university. But, staffs don’t have any means to fight back and make a claim. This has discouraged many staffs from doing scientific researches. Even if it is possible to get an external funder, the university might still deny such kinds of topics to be researched.

            1. Limited contribution of academicians to the public

    As it is obvious that the university community is relatively in a better position to access information, analyze and understand the truth, a lot is expected from them. But the super control of the government has limited the possible contribution which could have come from the elite groups. The freedom to write or speak in public is very limited in reality. Being educated has become a risky business, not only in Wollo University but also in Ethiopia.

    The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, in its general comment on the right to education, has stated: Academic freedom includes the liberty of individuals to express freely opinions about the institution or system in which they work, to fulfill their functions without discrimination or fear of repression by the state or any other actor, [and] to participate in professional or representative academic bodies. But in reality no one is protecting this right for Wollo University staffs, and as a result the public is not getting the best of the elite groups, plus the universities.

    4.    Conclusion

    The Ethiopian government has admitted the declining education quality at the universities, but not yet on the criticisms of violating academic freedom. Academic freedom is not only for the good of teachers or students residing in the university, rather it is a very serious matter for the public. The threat against academic freedom will be higher when it occurred for political business. Intervention of politics on educational institutions and its activities make universities to carry out wrong responsibility and to forget their mission.

    Hence it is clear to understand that Wollo University is facing the worst challenge in its early life. But if it is possible to keep putting pressure on the government to let them understand the extent of damages which will potentially result from violating academic freedom, there is a chance to reverse the situation. To do so, the university community shall take responsibility to support the challenge and its consequences with evidence and openly discuss the topic.



    Burgan, M.A. (1999). ‘A report from Paris’, Academe 85, 45–48.

    Downs, D. A. (2009). Academic Freedom: what it is, what it isn’t and How to tell the Difference. The John

    William Pope Centre for Higher Education Policy.

    Education International and UNESCO (2003). Quality Education and the Key Role of Teachers

    Human Rights Watch. (2003), Ethiopia Report. Vol. 15, No. 2 (A)

    Rostan, M. (2010). Challenges to Academic freedom, Some Empirical Evidence. European Review, Vol. 18.

    Cambridge University Press.

    Shattock Michael (2006). Managing Good Governance in Higher Education. Open University Press, UK.

    WU (2011). Wollo University Legislation

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