There are some worrying signs coming from France, which seeks to limit academic freedom in the name of defending national interests and preventing foreign interference.
France, a Western European democracy, which has long championed free speech and academic freedom, appears to have increased restrictions on universities.
As Paris aims to monitor intellectual activism, its policies are interestingly supported by many of its academics as they want to go after dissident voices across French universities.
The fodder to such hostilities is provided by the country's political institutions that have increased its pressure over its Muslim population after French teacher Samual Paty’s brutal beheading by a Chechen-origin perpetrator.
To suppress academic freedom, they appear to have found a new scapegoat, “Islamo-leftism”, a term insidiously designed to portray Muslim academics and French leftists in a bad light.
The French President Emmanuel Macron has already labelled 'Islamism' as a dangerous ideology, and described it as an enemy of the state by identifying it with terrorism.
Macron’s Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer went further, suggesting that "Islamo-leftism wreaks havoc at the university,” due to student activism represented by groups like the National Union of Students of France (UNEF), the country’s biggest students organisation. Blanquer thinks that “Islamo-leftism” has been enabled by organisations like the UNEF, which “gives in to this type of thing".
Blanquer was not alone in his thinking. In a very worrying sign, about 100 French scholars from different universities have recently come out to support the minister’s anti-intellectual points.
“We, academics and researchers, can only agree with this observation by Jean-Michel Blanquer. Who could deny the gravity of the situation today in France, especially after the recent Nice attack - a situation which, whatever some people claim, does not spare our universities?” scholars wrote in an op-ed published in the country’s prestigious Le Monde newspaper.
“Indigenist, racialist and “decolonial” ideologies (transferred from North American campuses) are very present there, fueling a hatred of “whites” and of France; and a sometimes violent activism attacks those who still dare to defy the anti-Western doxa,” they wrote.
France is a former colonial power known for its various atrocities across different continents. Many thought that even in the post-colonial period, the country could not reconcile with its past conduct.
Increasing trends of anti-academia sentiment across France publicly expressed by both political and academic establishments, have shown how the country’s elites have been recently spinning out of their ways, according to different observers.
Blanquer even thought that he had the right to designate what is truth or falsehood in intellectual terms in his remarks during a Senate speech, claiming that "very powerful Islamo-leftist currents in the sectors of higher education which are damaging people's minds.”
He even accused “intellectual radicalism", which is a vague term, for recent attacks in France.
Inside academia, many scholars are also increasingly getting nervous about new French governmental oversight backed by some prominent academics.
Political pressure came to a point where “social science research on immigration, integration or multiculturalism is no longer treated as a science but as a political camp that would have a hidden agenda,” says sociologist Vincent Tiberj.
Indian restrictions on academia
Proud of its 1789 French Revolution, when the country toppled its monarchy, France has inspired democratic movements across the world. It has also appeared - this time wrongly - to inspire other countries like India, the so-called world’s biggest democracy, to restrict academic freedom.
According to a new decree from the Indian government, which has been accused of suppressing the democratic aspirations of Kashmir, a disputed region, the country’s public universities cannot hold international conferences without New Delhi’s approval anymore.
Public universities in India will now have to seek government permission to host international conferences. And the topic cannot touch on “issues that are clearly related to India’s internal matters.” There’s not even a pretence of academic freedom. Academics, take note. https://t.co/5hbcRrHIc2— Radhika Govindrajan (@r_gov11) January 31, 2021
Russia’s foreign fears
Russia has been going through a turbulent political period. Anti-Putin protesters have launched various protests against dissident Alexey Navalny’s detention.
But Russia’s academic life has already been in danger for the government's various restrictions, according to leading human rights groups.
Two years ago, the country’s science and education ministry issued a set of recommendations, which regulate how communications between Russian and foreign scholars should be conducted.
According to the ministry’s rules, foreign visitors to Russian educational institutions need to follow specific guidelines, such as not using any recording or copying devices.
The so-called “recommendations” also enforce all research groups to inform the ministry ahead of any planned meetings with foreign scholars, as well as the names of academics and researchers for prospective gatherings.
According to the 2019 guideline, a single Russian researcher, who should be accompanied by another native scholar, was not permitted to meet with a foreign colleague.
In addition to this, Russian scholars also could not meet foreign scholars outside regular work hours should their supervisor not allow it.
Post meeting, Russian scholars would need to report the content of their conversations with their foreign colleagues. This should also include providing copies of the participants' passports.
In all this, there is a palpable harking back to the days of the Soviet Union, where officials needed always to be accompanied by the communist party’s political commissioners.