Freedom vs quality edition

Can a university be world-class if it doesn't guarantee academic freedom?

Rating Academic Freedom

Last week, the Academic Ranking of World Universities, better known as the Shanghai ranking, was released. American institutions again dominated the global higher-ed ranking, with U.S. universities holding eight of the top 10 positions.

The highest-rated Chinese institution on the homegrown list is Tsinghua University, at number 43. Peking University finished just outside the top 50, at 53rd.

Of the three dominant global university rankings, Shanghai actually gives Chinese institutions the lowest ratings. British higher-education publisher Times Higher Education places Tsinghua at number 22 worldwide and Peking at 31. On the QS World University Rankings, Tsinghua is 16th, just behind Princeton, Cornell, and Penn and ahead of Yale and Columbia.

Without question, Chinese universities have made great strides in scientific research in recent decades (although concerns that Chinese advances have been based on know-how poached from American and other foreign institutions has helped drive a U.S. government crackdown on Chinese researchers). But even as Chinese higher ed is moving forward in scientific discovery and technological innovation, it is going backward in terms of academic freedom.

Under President Xi Jinping, faculty members voicing unpopular ideas have been fired and student activists have been detained. Western textbooks and certain research topics are off-limits, while centers dedicated to “Xi Jinping Thought” have been founded. Foreign research connections may be regarded with suspicion. Professors spy on professors, students on students, students on professors. (I wrote a chapter on Chinese higher ed for an upcoming book on universities in an era of rising nationalism.)

This anti-intellectualism would seemingly run counter to China’s efforts to elevate its universities to among the best in the world. As prominent Chinese legal scholar Gong Renren wrote in an essay published on the website China Heritage:

“If the Humanities and Social Sciences at China’s universities continue to lag behind, they will remain a drag on the ‘Double First-class University Plan’. They will also hold back our society as a whole and the very civilization that it professes to support.”

Yet, during this same period, Tsinghua rose 30 or more places on both the Times Higher and QS rankings. This dissonance leads me to ask: Can a university truly be world-class if it doesn’t have academic freedom?

There is historical precedence for intellectual and research advancement in times when academic freedom has been curtailed, Janika Spannagel told me. Spannagel, a research associate at the Global Public Policy Institute, in Berlin, points to Nazi-era Germany, which produced several Nobel laureates even as the government asserted control of its universities and labs and purged them of Jewish scientists. The Soviet Union, too, lept ahead in the space race and logged other scientific advances while limiting speech and free expression.

“Academic freedom has not been a core component of academic excellence, at least as it’s conceived of today,” Spannagel said.

But at a time when higher-ed systems (and governments) are paying more attention to global measures of comparative quality, the fact that academic freedom is divorced from discussions of excellence is problematic. In addition to China, Spannagel mentions as alarming Turkey’s crackdown on scholars and how Hungary’s authoritarian government hounded Central European University, a liberal-arts institution, to leave the country.

In response, Spannagel and her colleagues are working to develop global ratings of academic freedom. Based on expert assessments, the pilot project, which should be completed next spring, will offer country-by-country measurements of academic freedom. Although the initial assessment will be on the national level, the quanitative approach will be complemented by case studies, and Spannagel hopes the tool can one day be refined to profile institutions.

It could be instructive to see just how much the idea of what makes a quality university dovetails with – or diverges from – one where students and scholars are able to think and speak, write and research, freely.

What are your thoughts about academic freedom vs. academic quality – can you have one without the other? How would you measure academic freedom? Share your thoughts. I’m at or on Twitter @karinfischer.

Visa Program Source of ‘Cheap Labor,’ Report Says

A State Department program meant to foster international goodwill and encourage cultural exchange has turned students from abroad into “a source of cheap and exploitable labor.” That’s the conclusion of an investigation into the Summer Work Travel program by the International Labor Recruitment Working Group, a coalition of union and worker rights organizations. 

The group says that students come to the U.S. for the summer on J-1 exchange visas expecting to improve their English, travel, and have cultural immersion and are instead put to work doing manual labor. The biggest beneficiaries, it concludes, are large corporations that use the students to skirt health and safety protections and avoid paying Social Security benefits. The State Department told The Nation it has “zero tolerance” for abuse of the program. You can read the full report here.

Ruling for Students in Fake College Case

An appeals court is ordering a lower court to take another look at a case brought by several international students caught up in a federal government sting. The Department of Homeland Security set up the fake University of Northern New Jersey in 2012 to ensnare recruiters taking kickbacks for providing visas to foreign nationals. The sham college came with a school crest, a motto – “Humanus, Scientia, Integritas” – and a robust social-media presence.

The government initially called the students who had signed up for classes at UNNJ victims but then later changed course to suggest that they were active participants and terminated their student visas. Several students challenged that decision, arguing that they were not given the opportunity to appeal their removal from the United States. A district court threw out the case, but in a ruling Thursday the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reinstated it, writing:

“The students are genuinely aggrieved after having their lawful status terminated and a notation of fraud placed on their records, thereby permanently branding each of them with a Scarlett ‘F’.... Rather than allow the Government’s change in position to inure to the Government’s own benefit, we believe the flip-flop underscores the need for judicial review of a decision that would otherwise escape review by any court or agency.”

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Around the Globe

A Trump administration regulation that would tighten scrutiny of green-card and visa applicants if they have used public benefits such as food stamps could reinforce the idea that international students are not welcome in the U.S., educators warned.

Higher-education associations and groups promoting free speech have signed onto a letter expressing concern that the monitoring of Chinese students and scholars could “trample on individual rights” and impede scientific research. 

A student from Moscow’s Higher School of Economics faces eight years in prison for joining an anti-Kremlin protest. Classmates started a petition demanding his release.

Russian scientists will have to get permission to meet with foreign colleagues and submit reports on those encounters, under new government guidelines that are drawing comparisons to Soviet-era restrictions.

Federal investigators have been visiting workplaces to check employers’ compliance with a program that allows international students to work in the U.S. after graduation.

The University of California at Berkeley's Sikh Student Association is urging the university to “re-examine” its partnerships with India after the government stripped Kashmir of its statehood and put the region under lockdown.

The release on bail of a prominent pro-democracy scholar could be a test case for dwindling academic freedom in Hong Kong. Benny Tai faces disciplinary hearings at Hong Kong University.

The Scottish and Welsh governments are seeking assurances that the Erasmus program, which has paid for millions of European students to study at universities within the continent, will continue to operate even if the UK leaves the European Union without a Brexit deal in place.

But a paper from a higher-ed think tank argues that higher post-Brexit tuition won’t necessarily lead to a sharp drop in EU students at British universities.

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And finally…

What’s in a name? For Lasell, a small, private institution in Massachusetts, the hope is that dropping “college” and becoming a “university” will lead to long-term survival. In particular, Lasell administrators hope that as a university, the institution will be more attractive to international students, the Boston Globe reports.

While a university differs from a college in that it offers graduate degrees, in practice, the two terms are often used interchangeably in the U.S. Not so overseas, where “college” frequently connotes a less-prestigious or even vocational institution. Still, I’m not entirely convinced that a name change is the fix for problems like Lasell’s estimated 40 percent transfer-out rate among international students.

I’m interested to hear your stories about recruiting abroad as colleges. What do you do to overcome confusion and educate potential students and their parents? I’ll share your tips and observations next week.

’Til next week – Karin

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