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A fight between scholars and senior managers at an Irish university has highlighted the ongoing tension between internationalization and academic freedom.

A working group established by the academic council at University College Dublin last month proposed an addendum to the institution’s statement on academic freedom, in which it explained that it was important for "a university with a large international footprint, to consider and appraise the risk of tension arising between the obligations regarding academic freedom and the strategic imperative to internationalize higher education."

The draft addendum added that “there is little firm ground (including case law) on which to rest an agreed definition of what academic freedom means” and pointed out that “learning about and engaging with other traditions of academic freedom is a valuable component of such international partnerships.”

It said the university should establish “whether divergent approaches to academic freedom can be reconciled or accommodated” during partnership negotiations.

The working group revised its recommendations this week just hours after academics signed a petition claiming that the addendum “amounts to a serious weakening of [a] crucial academic value” and Times Higher Education approached the institution for comment. Some scholars had also raised concerns that the draft addendum and a survey on the subject were shared with staff when they were distracted by the COVID-19 crisis.

However, academics said they were still concerned that the initial proposals had been considered, and they speculated about whether the university would attempt to reintroduce them at a later date.

The revised recommendations suggest that UCD should introduce measures to ensure that scholars are informed about “the specific context applying to academic freedom in other jurisdictions where they may be required to teach.” They add that academic freedom should be “addressed in the initial stages of all international partnership negotiations with the aim of promoting the tradition and ethos of academic freedom as articulated in the UCD Statement of Academic Freedom.”

Wolfgang Marx, associate professor in musicology at UCD, who started the petition, said the original proposals would have “relativized” and “downgraded” academic freedom from a basic principle to “a legal nicety that needs to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis and can be sacrificed if it stands too much in the way of … the acquisition of lucrative fee-paying students, and the setting up of joint programs and campuses.”

While Marx described the university’s U-turn as a victory for academics, he added that the increasing financial pressure on universities as a result of the coronavirus crisis might result in other institutions considering changes to their academic freedom policies in a bid to secure more international partnerships.

Patrick Paul Walsh, full professor of international development studies at UCD, said it was “quite concerning” that the university “would even consider trading off” academic freedom “to profit from internationalization of education.”

“A lot of governments are not open to the idea that academics can talk absolutely freely … Maybe we just shouldn’t be setting up partnerships in these countries,” he said.

Grace Mulcahy, chair of the academic freedom working group at UCD, said it had “revised its recommendations in response to the feedback received from faculty.”

“The objective of the working group was to provide additional protections to strengthen academic freedom,” she added.

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