Report from an IIF Event – Academic Freedom: “national security” threats in Turkey, India and the UK

Can the university be a space where academic freedom reigns while restrictions are increasingly threatening voices and lives outside its gates? Or must spaces for politics be opened up on and off campus in order to address the invasion of national security (and capitalist) logics into the realms of open enquiry? On 27 October 2016, scholars and activists engaged these questions with a focus on the variable effects of the securitisation of university space in Turkey, India and the UK.

A panel on Turkey included academics and students who have lost their jobs as a result of the broader crackdown on dissent following the failed coup in July. They highlighted the connections between increasing violence in the Kurdish regions of Turkey—which precipitated the “Academics for peace” petition that has been used as a pretext for dismissing many signatories from their posts—and the attempts of the state to impose controls on its critics. They asked if the focus on the plight of academics may mean that this violence recedes from the view of international publics. Efforts to maintain solidarity among those now outside the academy and those still within it, as well as initiatives to take the university outside spaces the government controls, provide hope for continued resistance in fearful times and carve out a more universal idea of the University as institution and spirit that always has had to be fought for and salvaged from strategies of subjection from various quarters, not only outside the University. In this way, this panel was inspiring for all university struggles, not just those related to Turkey.

While Indian scholars may face some similar pressures, these are more diffuse and tend to be felt most acutely by scholars and writers in the regions and in smaller institutions. These regional dynamics were highlighted when, in the wake of her participation in this event, Professor Nandini Sundar of Delhi University was charged with murder by a regional government because of her exposure of state violence against people in the area where a Maoist insurgency has been underway for many years. At national level, students have generally been the main targets of government efforts to paint resistance to state-sponsored violence against minorities as “anti-national”. Sedition charges brought against students at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi brought forth a concerted campaign of solidarity among academics and students there, challenging the government’s actions.

In the UK, government policies and laws on counter terrorism agendas, such as Prevent, now require universities and teachers to monitor speech and even thinking on campus. Speakers on this panel highlighted contrasting perspectives on the question of how much the university could be an island of academic freedom—grounded on strong commitments to this specific freedom in UK and Scottish law—given the prevailing climate of Islamophobia and distrust of Muslim minorities.

Ending the day on a high note, we heard a report on how staff and students at the University of Aberdeen have sought to “reclaim” their institution from efforts to turn it into a business venture through the Reclaiming our University initiative. They outlined a joint strategy of organizing from below while simultaneously engaging with university governance systems, such as the Senate, to assert the unique character of the university as an organizational form and resist pressures to transform it along business lines. The Manifesto of their movement, now finalized, will be formally launched at a public event later this month, and will be presented to the University’s Senate with the hope that it will be ratified.

Around 40 people (including speakers) joined us on the day at Summerhall while more than 200 joined the event via a live stream that covered the whole day. Click here for a version of this report with videos of individual panels and the whole day

Click here for the final programme and list of speakers

The event was sponsored by the School of Social and Political Science, the Global Justice Academy, Citizens, Nations and Migration (CNaM) Network and the Centre for South Asian Studies, all at the University of Edinburgh.