UNESCO and the Universities

By Savage, Donald C.; Finn, Patricia A. | Academe, July/August 1999 | Go to article overview

UNESCO and the Universities


Savage, Donald C., Finn, Patricia A., Academe


It took years for UNESCO to adopt a statement on faculty rights and responsibilities. University administrators and the international business community want to water it down.

IN NOVEMBER 1997, THE UNITED NATIONS EDUCATIONAL, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) adopted a wide-ranging "recommendation," or official policy pronouncement, defining academic freedom and other faculty rights and responsibilities. The recommendation-the first official pronouncement by an agency of the United Nations to address these matters-sets an international standard for judging the actions of authoritarian governments and defines academic freedom and its attendant responsibilities in a way that may be useful for courts and arbitrators in democratic countries. It also states that the protections for freedom of association and free collective bargaining found in the conventions of the International Labour Organization (ILO) apply to faculty in universities and colleges.

An odd combination of governments attacked the recommendation as it progressed through the legislative machinery of UNESCO. Nigeria's government objected to the fact that it supported the civil rights of academics; Saudi Arabia's argued that it did not give enough support to tradition; and South Korea said it did not reflect Asian values. At the same time, the United Kingdom did not like the recommendation because it supported tenure, while Australia and New Zealand felt that it was insufficiently sensitive to market forces. The World Bank, behind the scenes, advocated a more managerial approach.

In the end, however, no government voted against the proposal. Four countries expressed formal reservations, but those reservations were not related to the recommendation's section on academic freedom. Nonetheless, over the last year, there have been attempts-so far unsuccessful-by some university presidents organized at the international level to water down the section on academic freedom.

Origins of the Recommendation

LIKE MANY OTHER INTERNATIONAL DOCUMENTS, THE recommendation on academic rights and responsibilities had a long period of gestation. Thirty years ago, UNESCO and the ILO developed a policy statement on the rights and responsibilities of primary and secondary school teachers. Some hoped that a parallel statement could be adopted for higher education, but the times were not propitious. The Cold War tended to paralyze discussion on such topics, and, besides that, universities and colleges were not high on UNESCO's agenda. In the eighties, the World Bank, which wished at the time to limit the development of higher education in the Third World, encouraged that stance. Meanwhile, UNESCO was entering a period of serious internal difficulties, which eventually led to the departure of the United Kingdom and the United States.

In addition to these problems, higher-education personnel lacked effective organization at the international level. To rectify this weakness, national faculty organizations in Canada and France helped to bring together a loose coalition of faculty bodies from some of the industrialized countries. The coalition included all three national associations in the United States: the AAUP, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National Education Association. It also included federations in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, New Zealand, the Scandinavian countries, the United Kingdom, and, later on, postapartheid South Africa. By this time, UNESCO had undertaken several studies on the possibility of developing an international statement on faculty rights and responsibilities. Thus the time seemed opportune for a detailed proposal to spur the process on. Drafted by Patricia Finn, executive director of the academic staff association of Carleton University in Canada, the proposal was adopted by the coalition at a 1991 meeting in Berlin, and forwarded to UNESCO and the ILO. During this period, two large nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) representing primary and secondary school teachers around the world merged to form Education International (EI). …

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