Academic freedom is a fragile construct. There is not a particularly long history of scholars and students being able to freely choose their subjects of enquiry, pursue these subjects, and disseminate their findings. Today, likewise, academic freedom remains contested or absent in large parts of the world, according to the most recent Academic Freedom Index (AFI). Even in academic systems that nominally guarantee academic freedom, for example in North America and Western Europe, scholars may find that it is de facto curtailed by a range of pressures, from efforts of anti-democratic groups to record and censor academic speech to the stifling of scholarly enquiry by performance management and the pressure cooker politics of ‘publish or perish’ (1, 2).
The COVID-19 pandemic, now long ongoing and of unpredictable duration, has upset universities around the world. It has curtailed international travel in a globalised academic system, it has interrupted teaching, it has upended scholars’ well-laid research plans, and it has deeply disturbed university’s financial viability, in a time when comprehensive public funding for higher education has, in many societies, become a thing of the past. What might all this mean, as far as the prospects of academic freedom are concerned? To begin with, two kinds of threats to academic freedom come to mind:
First, there is the issue of mobility restriction. Public health measures in response to the pandemic have, of necessity, involved extensive lockdowns and the curtailment of individuals’ mobilities. International travel has collapsed, and its recovery has been limited. Important international centers of scholarship have closed their borders and reopened them only selectively, to specific groups of travelers, or not at all. Therefore, for example, two academic systems that are major recipients of international students, in Australia and in China, have maintained closed borders, stranding large student populations abroad for a long and as yet uncertain period. Mobility restrictions have obviously been necessary to curb the spread of COVID-19 and, prospectively, halt the pandemic. It is not my intention to question any of this. However, the question offers itself to what extent these restrictions may be dropped once the severity of the pandemic has lessened. On the one hand, COVID-19 seems to be on its way to becoming endemic, and this may mean that mobility, internationally and locally, will remain curtailed.
On the other hand, the pandemic irrupted into a world in which nationalism, xenophobia, and racism had already been on the rise, with direct implications for academics and students, as shown by Britain’s Brexit calamity and restrictions on visas for foreign scholars in the United States under the Trump government. At least in some countries, there may be little political incentive for governments to facilitate academic mobility. For social researchers who depend on the ability to travel and be on the move for their day-to-day academic labor, long-term mobility constraints would amount to significant restrictions of academic freedom.
Second, the pandemic has created opportunities for enhanced surveillance of academic labor, from the systematic recording of teaching and learning in the wake of classes wholesale move online, to elaborate systems of work and performance tracking for academics working from home. The pandemic thus has come hand in hand with an intensification of performance management, as part of a global system of academic capitalism geared towards the extraction of socio-economic value from scholarship. At the same time, mass dismissals of scholars during the pandemic have highlighted the heightened vulnerability and precariousness of scholarship.
More could be said about threats to academic freedom emerging from the pandemic. However, the key point to be made is that, in a rapidly changing world, academic freedom, in the places where it does exist, cannot be taken for granted any longer. I am often struck by the ways in which many academics living and working in liberal democracies in the Global Northwest seem to assume the availability of academic freedom as a basic condition of their own work, and of their dealings with other academics at the international level. This as a problematic assumption prior to COVID-19, and it has become even more problematic as the contours of the (post-)pandemic world slowly become clear. Universities can function perfectly well without academic freedom, and they already do, in many places around the world. COVID-19 has the clear potential to render academic freedom even less politically desirable than it is now. It is therefore high time those scholars who do enjoy it take note of it, appreciate it, and do their best to defend it.