What is a ‘uni­ver­sity’?

The Sun (Malaysia) - - SPEAK UP -

TEN years ago, one of the largest uni­ver­sity gath­er­ings – the World Uni­ver­sity Pres­i­dent Sum­mit – was held in Bangkok. It was at­tended by more than 1,500 par­tic­i­pants, 245 of whom were uni­ver­sity presidents, vicechan­cel­lors and rec­tors from 85 coun­tries. They came to a his­toric agree­ment on what is a uni­ver­sity an it was pro­claimed in the Bangkok Dec­la­ra­tion on Higher Ed­u­ca­tion: Di­ver­sity and Har­mon­i­sa­tion.

It de­clares: “Uni­ver­si­ties must strive to be above pol­i­tics and busi­ness in­ter­ests and serve their so­ci­eties and com­mu­ni­ties by pro­vid­ing a voice and space in which to cul­ti­vate ra­tio­nal, mu­tual and moder­ate di­a­logues that will shape in­tel­lec­tual, cul­tural and eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment on a shared ba­sis within and across bound­aries and na­tions.”

I have kept close to this dec­la­ra­tion be­cause “uni­ver­sity” has been too many “things” to too many peo­ple. Con­se­quently, the sanc­tity of a uni­ver­sity and thus knowl­edge is of­ten un­der threat from vested in­ter­ests. This has re­sulted in di­min­ish­ing con­fi­dence in ed­u­ca­tional ecosys­tems when it is made vul­ner­a­ble with no co­her­ence in the un­der­stand­ing of its def­i­ni­tion. Or oth­er­wise it runs con­trary to the univer­sal ethos of ed­u­ca­tion by threat­en­ing aca­demic free­dom and in­sti­tu­tional au­ton­omy in par­tic­u­lar.

Ac­cord­ing to the Unesco-based In­ter­na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Uni­ver­si­ties (IAU), the prin­ci­ple of in­sti­tu­tional au­ton­omy can be de­fined as the nec­es­sary de­gree of in­de­pen­dence from ex­ter­nal in­ter­fer­ence that the uni­ver­sity re­quires for its in­ter­nal or­gan­i­sa­tion and gov­er­nance, the in­ter­nal dis­tri­bu­tion of fi­nan­cial re­sources and the generation of in­come from non-pub­lic sources, the re­cruit­ment of staff, the set­ting of con­di­tions of study and the free­dom to teach and do re­search.

The prin­ci­ple of aca­demic free­dom, on the other hand, is de­fined by IAU as the free­dom for schol­ars, teach­ers and stu­dents to pur­sue schol­arly ac­tiv­i­ties within a frame­work de­ter­mined by them. This is to en­able ser­vices to be ren­dered “by pro­vid­ing a voice and space in which to cul­ti­vate ra­tio­nal, mu­tual and moder­ate di­a­logues that will shape in­tel­lec­tual, cul­tural and eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment on a shared ba­sis within and across bound­aries and na­tions.” As such aca­demic free­dom also en­gages the obli­ga­tion by each mem­ber of the aca­demic pro­fes­sion to ex­cel­lence, to in­no­va­tion, and to ad­vanc­ing the fron­tiers of knowl­edge through re­search and the dif­fu­sion of its re­sults through teach­ing and pub­li­ca­tion

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