A group should be set up to protect academic freedom and guard against political interference, a law professor says. Raymond Wacks, professor of law and legal theory at the University of Hong Kong, said he was concerned the principle of academic freedom, already under pressure, would face greater danger after the handover. He proposes setting up a group of academics from a cross-section of institutions who would monitor issues like staff appointments and dismissals, student curricula, access to international conferences and student demonstrations. Although many individuals supported the principles of free speech, the territory lacked an organised group to safeguard principles of academic freedom and university autonomy, he said. 'Academic freedom is essentially a means to protect what is taught and how it is taught and gives academics a privilege which goes beyond freedom of speech,' he said. 'It protects the integrity and the openness of a university, which is fundamental to that institution. 'It is unthinkable to me to have a university without academic freedom.' Professor Wacks, who has been published widely on human rights and Hong Kong's legal system, believes such freedoms are under siege from inside and outside. The external threat mainly took the form of greater government monitoring. 'The bulk of our grant comes from government and the argument goes the Government therefore has a right to monitor the performance of universities,' he said. 'This is beginning to take place on quite a grand scale in Hong Kong, never before seen here.' While the Government had to ensure universities spent money wisely, efficiency criteria discriminated against arts disciplines, the financial returns of which were harder to measure. 'It is much easier in the relatively neutral disciplines of science or medicine to satisfy government, rather than in sociology, politics or even law,' Professor Wacks said. And he warned against the danger of 'creeping philistinism' under which universities judged academic performance in narrow terms. Some UK universities ranked academics in terms of the number of publications they produced. But he said the internal and more serious threat to academic freedom was the growing tendency among local institutions, including universities, to exercise self-censorship to avoid antagonising China. Although Article 137 of the Basic Law guaranteed academic freedom after the handover, it was a fact of life that Hong Kong people were already less willing to speak out on sensitive issues like human rights. 'We need to be alert to the possibility that people will be careful not to cause antagonism to China or the government of the SAR,' he said. Professor Wacks in 1994 was a member of the University Press Committee, which rejected a proposal to co-publish a book about Tibet that was critical of China. The book had already been published in the United States, and the intention was for Hong Kong University Press to co-publish to give the work a wider market in the region. 'It is quite common that university presses co-publish books, but the committee was opposed to doing it,' Professor Wacks said. 'It felt that the university would be seen to be involved with criticism of China, and since Tibet is such a sensitive issue it would be best not to go ahead with it. That view prevailed.' In response to the incident, he suggested setting up an academic freedom forum. 'I took a motion, first to our faculty board and then to the senate, asking the senate to reaffirm its belief in academic freedom,' Professor Wacks said. The idea was not taken up, but he believes the need for such a group has become more apparent to keep the issue of academic freedom on the agenda.