What is a ‘university’?
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