Review 'doesn't touch academic freedom'
Scholars warn over appeal, but HKIEd chief says:
President-elect of the Hong Kong Institute of Education has defended the government's decision to seek a judicial review of the findings of the commission of inquiry into claims of political interference in the institute's affairs.
Speaking on Thursday after the institute's ruling council confirmed his appointment, which will start in January, Anthony Cheung Bing-leung said the request for a review did not 'touch on the principle of academic freedom'.
Professor Cheung, an executive council member, said academic freedom was 'crucial to any institution'. 'The fact that academic freedom was emphasised in the commission of inquiry's report underlies the general public's concern about it.'
The government claims the commission's finding 'affects the dealings between government officials and academic institutions'.
But some overseas China scholars have criticised the call for a review, saying it could affect Hong Kong's international reputation.
Lynn White, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University and acting director of the Harvard-Princeton China and the World Programme, said a review wasn't in Hong Kong's academic interests. 'People in the Education Bureau may feel it crucially benefits their own prestige, but it does not in the long term benefit the universities of Hong Kong,' he said.
Professor White also challenged the argument by government counsel Johnny Mok Shiu-luen that 'academic freedom is not per se a fundamental right' and should not take precedence over a government official's right to freedom of expression.
'There is in the Basic Law a right to academic freedom,' Professor White said.
Article 137 of the Basic Law states, 'educational institutions of all kinds may retain their autonomy and enjoy academic freedom'.
He said 'the decision to appeal the findings, combined with other factors, weakens Hong Kong's clear position as the freest place for academia in the Chinese world'.
Richard Baum, professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, and former director of its Centre for Chinese Studies, said the government was taking a risk.
'Hong Kong already exists on a knife-edge of world scrutiny,' he said. 'If there is even the appearance of a conflict of interest or undue pressure being exerted on academics, journalists or civil society organisations, it will inevitably be held up to microscopic scrutiny.'
Sam Ziazarifi, research director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, the New York-based non-governmental organisation, said academic freedom was a 'clearly established right under international law'.
The role of academics was to be productive members of their societies and use their expertise to improve how things were running, whether that meant 'building a better mousetrap or critiquing the government'. 'The notion that the governments can curb what academics can say is just not tenable any more,' he said.
A leading British university administrator, who asked not to be named, warned there could be a knock-on effect similar to the situation in Singapore where Warwick University pulled out of setting up a joint campus two years ago due to concerns over academic freedom.
Tim Westlake, director of international development at Manchester University, said British universities would traditionally partner with institutions where there was full academic freedom.
An Education Bureau spokesman said the government respected and would 'continue to uphold academic freedom as well as the autonomy of higher educational institutions in Hong Kong'.
'We believe that the commission has erred in concluding that direct contact of a senior government official with academic members of an educational institution to express his/her opinion on or to protest against the critical views of the academic members, even without any threat of sanction or reprisal, would constitute improper interference with academic freedom.'