BM86: Academic Freedom, Higher Education  Institutions must take responsibility

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Since the initiation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, discussions surrounding the conflict have permeated various spheres, including academia. Higher Education Institutions have facilitated podium discussions and provided platforms for students to engage in informed dialogue. However, since 2023, with the resurgence of the Israel-Palestine conflict, many higher education institutions have chosen to refrain from addressing this matter, revealing differences in treatment of the conflicts. Despite the significant impact of this crisis on students in Europe, there remains a noticeable scarcity of information disseminated by academic entities. The prevailing reticence within most higher education institutions, which restricts discussion of the crisis, raises concerns regarding academic freedom and freedom of speech.  

The evolving landscape of digitalisation, characterized by the proliferation of social media and misinformation, introduces new complexities to discussions on conflicts. In this context, universities are called upon to uphold their responsibility as centers of teaching and learning and open dialogue. The reluctance of many Swiss universities to engage in discussions about the broader conflict hampers the possibility of engaging in fact-based discussions. Since October 7th, 2023, there has been a noticeable polarization in the media, both politically and socially, contributing to a dearth of rational discourse and empirically grounded analysis. Particularly at the institutional level, there is a notable absence of discussions rooted in empirical evidence and knowledge. Presently, in Switzerland, there is a climate of reticence, in which in some instances attempts to foster open, scientifically based discussions are met with obstacles. This reticence and failure to fulfill universities’ duty exacerbates misinformation and feelings of insecurity among students and staff. For example, the following situations have been observed: 

The selectivity of academic statements from higher education institutions regarding the ongoing conflict contributed to  confusion and misinformation, impacting not only students but society as a whole. This has led to significant media scrutiny and misuse of language, underscoring a failure on the part of universities to fulfill their role. Some professors, knowledgeable in the feld, have chosen not to engage in scientifically grounded discussions on the subject, despite student demands. Such actions raise concerns regarding academic freedom. Instances of universities censoring discussions or canceling events due to external pressures have occurred, perpetuating a culture of reticence and allowing for misinterpretation. Additionally, there have been cases of student led events and distribution campaigns being banned, impeding freedom of speech.

The reluctance to openly discuss ongoing conflicts has even resulted in the suspension of scientific research and the reorganization of research institutes at various universities, solely due to media pressure. This trend poses a clear threat to academically grounded research, with academic freedom at risk due to prevailing reticence. 

Our demands 

Create spaces for scientific, critical and factual discussions 

There is a necessity for science-based information. For example, this includes a historical and geopolitical context and understanding of all conflicts, and in the current context, for the Israel-Palestine conflict, as well as precise definitions and distinctions in terminology usage. Universities hold a responsibility to share such knowledge and fostering inclusive forums for discussions, not only towards their students, but also to society at large. 

Promote mutual human support and exchange in the aforementioned spaces 

During times of crisis, it is imperative for all people to come together, regardless of their personal standings. We demand that universities provide the necessary space where people can connect and engage in dialogue to collectively navigate through these challenges. It is particularly crucial that people directly affected by the conflict are provided with the necessary understanding to act within the scope of their possibilities. In a climate of openness, understanding and respect, as expected of universities, fostering such dialogue should not only be facilitated, but also actively promoted. 

Provide accessible sources of information with no distinction between conflicts 

The same extensive resources and contact points made available by universities to those affected by the Russian invasion of Ukraine should also be made available to those affected by the Israel-Palestine conflict and for people affected by future conflicts. In general, we demand that in the future there should be no differentiation between conflicts when providing necessary information and contact points. 

Take responsibility of one’s own role in society 

Overall, we demand that universities take responsibility for their role and duty in society and towards their students, and to take a stand on the mentioned points in this position. Universities should be a place where such issues can be discussed rationally with openness, criticism and founded information. The conflict between Israel and Palestine cannot set a precedent for the sidelining of topics from the academic and social discourse. We therefore call for a clearer communication and action strategy that Swiss universities can follow in the future.  

Ensure academic freedom and independence from external pressure of politics and the media 

We acknowledge that researchers’ perspectives and backgrounds inherently shape their focus and subjects of studies. Nevertheless, adhering to established scientific standards ensures the objectivity of such research. Therefore, they should not be categorized on a political spectrum and judged on that basis. Scientific knowledge, 

when produced within these standards, represents unbiased facts that should not be inappropriately instrumentalist or censored. We regard the influence and censorship by the media and university administration as a violation of academic freedom. We demand that criticism from media, politics, or business, of the scientific integrity of research be carefully reviewed by university administrations in accordance with general research standards and unequivocally refuted if necessary. 

It is with great concern that VSS-UNES-USUs observe this example of academic freedom being threatened and we urge all student unions across Europe to fight this ongoing trend of censorship. 

Silence and passivity on this issue undermine academic freedom. 

In conclusion, the Swiss Student Union, VSS-UNES-USU, together with ESU urge higher education institutions to: 

1. Create spaces for scientific, critical and open discussions; 

2. Promote mutual human support and exchange in the aforementioned spaces; 

3. Provide accessible sources of information with no distinction between conflicts;

4. Take responsibility of one’s own role in society; 

5. Ensure academic freedom and independence from external pressure of politics and the media. 


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