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The Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) defends Academic Freedom in SA



“Academic freedom is not only constitutionally protected, but rests on the capacity for independent commentary that is crucial to the evidence-based work that is unique to Academies,” the statement says. “Indeed, the Academy of Science of South Africa’s mission of “Science for Society” cannot be realised without the exercise of the freedom to research, write, and speak robustly and professionally, without fear or favour on any topic including the impact of science on society…. In a democratic South Africa, academic freedom in all higher education institutions is integral to the intellectual life of the country.”

Academic freedom and the freedom of scholarly research are guaranteed by the South African Constitution of 1996 under the ‘freedom of speech’ clause. Academic freedom was identified as a core principle for the governance of higher education by the 1997 White Paper on the transformation of Higher Education. In 2008, it was addressed by an independent task team of the Council on Higher Education (CHE), resulting in the report, Academic Freedom, Institutional Autonomy and Public Accountability in South African Higher Education, with the conclusions of which the Academy concurs.

The ASSAf statement identifies three new threats to academic freedom that have recently emerged in South Africa: the averredly intrusive effects of government regulations, the apparently excessive influence of private sector sponsorship of the universities, and the perceived limitations of freedom of speech within the universities. The right of academics to criticise university administrations has been particularly contentious.

“Taken together, these concerns suggest that the values entrenched in the constitution and in education practice are being eroded by government policy, funding agencies, sponsors and donors, and by institutional management,” the statement reads. “Furthermore, ASSAf believes that researchers and teachers within higher education and the research community at large should be free to follow their own ideas, arguments, insights and findings, conditional only on the avoidance of scholarly misconduct such as plagiarism, falsification of data and unethical research practice.”

The statement emphasises the role of the testing and confirmation processes which are provided by peer review and publication in the open domain, and that no interference can be permitted in the chain of intellectual authority that runs between researcher, reviewer and published result.

The statement goes on to address the question of academic free speech within the university context, pronouncing support for a collegial system of governance and an intellectually free environment, where high-quality teaching and research, in a climate of academic freedom and social responsiveness, allows higher education to best fulfil its accountability to society.

The full statement is available on the Academy’s website, at www.assaf.org.za.

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