What is true academic solidarity?

Credit: Alejandro Ospina

The Academic Freedom Index (AFI), updated in 2022, shows a noticeable global decline in academic freedom over the past ten years. This decline has accelerated not only in countries with unstable democracies and authoritarian regimes in the Global South but also in countries with well-known stable democracies in Western Europe and North America, such as the United Kingdom and the United States of America. Only two countries, Gambia and Uzbekistan, show a major and significant increase in academic freedom between 2011 and 2021. 

The authors of the AFI report indicate the relationship between the decline of academic freedom and a decline in average democracy levels. For example, the major declines within the AFI were seen in Hong Kong, Brazil, Turkey, and Thailand, and the authors designate these countries as “potential danger zones” for researchers and students. 

This, in turn, leads us to make a connection with the current academic solidarity initiatives as well as identify a contradiction in practice. Since 2020, as Nil Mutluer states, many local and international organisations tend not to consider scholars from Turkey as a risk category anymore, which will most probably lead to declining level of support for scholars in the country. The Scholars at Risk Network (SAR), which is involved in the development of the AFI, also appears to have adopted this approach. From personal experience I know that SAR has started closing the cases of many scholars from the country, although there has not been any significant change in their risk situation.

However, this assessment is made on the basis of false assumptions, as if scholars at risk from Turkey can just safely go back to the country and start working at a university. Given that political risk is still present in the country, the lack of future prospects for at-risk scholars in host countries and institutions beyond a short period covered by third-party funded scholarships remains a major challenge. Many scholars at risk could not find entry to highly competitive academic labor markets in Europe and North America or could not integrate themselves during the  period of their short scholarships to the dominant third-party funding systems for their research projects. 

In relation to that, third-party funding systems also create a high level of insecure and precarious employment at universities in Europe. For example in Germany, 84 percent of full-time academic staff were employed on a temporary basis in 2020. Unfortunately this concern is not given the right place in assessments of academic freedom. The AFI does not include tenure or job security as an indicator. The authors say they exclude this topic because the index mainly considers indicators comparable across different university systems around the world. Contrary to this explanation, one can argue that this kind of data can be more easily compared and collected than many other indicators used in the AFI. 

Regardless, the crucial question here is, what would it mean then to include job security in the index? The answer is quite simple: all Western countries and universities would show a significant decline in their scores of academic freedom given the high level of precarious academic labor at their institutions. 

In other words, a critique of AFI’s position would be that the neoliberal attack on academic freedom – namely the decline of tenure and job security and widespread system of third-party funding – should also be seen as a major threat to academic freedom. 

This last point helps us conceptualize academic solidarity. Based on various philosophical and sociological approaches to solidarity, most of which are well summarized by Jolanta Bieliauskaitė, I argue that we can talk broadly about two types of academic solidarity. 

I call the first type third-party funding academic solidarity. It should be deeply appreciated that there are currently many organizations and networks of universities in Europe and North America protecting academic freedom and supporting refugee and displaced scholars. Their main support tool is scholarships, most of which run for two years. When the period of this kind of third-party funding is over, scholars fall into a helpless situation as the host universities mostly do not provide any further funding or offer any permanent position. Put differently, it is a painful fact that once the third-party funding is over, then the academic solidarity is over too! This fact allows us to identify some of the characteristics of third-party funding academic solidarity.

This type of academic solidarity is based on the instrumental and utilitarian perspective of neoliberal higher education enterprise, which is run by market fundamentalism and competition. It equates solidarity with rational calculation of resources and outcomes with the benefits for instrumental cooperation with individuals and institutions. It accepts the status quo and submits to the existing power structures. The scope of this type of solidarity is drawn primarily by the power structures, market rules, and third-party funders, none of which  consider academic criteria and qualities in the first place. Therefore, “it blocks the emancipatory practice and [the] possibility of [a real, wider] solidarity” within the academic community.

The second type, committed academic solidarity, is definitely a wider kind of solidarity, based on cultural and ethical values. It thus creates socially based obligations and equates solidarity with a sense of unity within the academic community and society. In other words, committed academic solidarity and its adherents “not only seek pleasure and benefit” but also act on the basis of globally “internalised values and common norms” by the academic community. As the philosopher Gadamer says, real solidarity must be conscious. The crucial point is the need to be conscious about the common goals of such solidarity. It is committed to “consciously creat[ing], encourag[ing] and nurtur[ing]” this type of solidarity beyond a narrow third-party funding solidarity. 

Crucially, academic freedom is closely linked to other human rights, such as freedom of speech and the right to education. Any attack on academic freedom is a broader threat to human rights in our societies. Academic freedom must be protected in order to secure a just and sustainable society. Hence, we should not forget that forging a committed academic solidarity would, above all, contribute to fulfilling our common goal to protect individuals’ rights and freedoms in our societies.

Editor's note (February 21, 2023): This article originally stated that Scholars at Risk no longer plans to provide support for scholars in Turkey. It has been updated for clarification.