University College Dublin (UCD) has dropped proposed changes to its academic freedom policy to allow for "different interpretations" of the concept due to the university's expanding links to China and other countries, following a significant backlash from academics.
The draft policy, seen by The Irish Times, states UCD must consider “the risk of tension” between its obligations to uphold academic freedom and “the strategic imperative to internationalise higher education”.
In recent years, UCD has increasingly relied on income from international students, who can pay annual fees of more than €20,000. Nearly one-third of the university’s students now fall into this category.
The draft policy states as UCD continues to “strengthen its international engagement” and partners with other universities overseas, it should seek to accommodate “divergent approaches to academic freedom”.
“It is important to be aware that different interpretations of academic freedom may arise in other jurisdictions where Irish law does not apply,” the policy states.
UCD jointly runs an international college in Beijing, a medical college in Malaysia, and has partnerships with other colleges in China as well as institutions in Singapore, Sri Lanka and Hong Kong.
The university also has an agreement with the Chinese ministry of education to host a Confucius Institute on its south Dublin campus, one of hundreds set up in colleges around the world to promote Chinese culture and language.
Several western universities have severed ties with the Beijing-linked institutes in recent years due to concerns over academic freedom.
The proposed changes to UCD’s academic freedom policy have caused significant concern among academics since the amendment was circulated to staff for feedback last month.
Diarmaid Ferriter, professor of modern Irish history, said the changes raised questions over whether UCD would be "prepared to forego significant funds" to persevere a robust commitment to "uncompromised freedom of expression" for academics and researchers.
“It is difficult to dispute the assertion that an ever-growing dependence on revenue from China could have implications for academic freedom,” he said.
“One question is to what extent would UCD be willing to compromise if Chinese pressure was applied?”
Prof Ferriter said UCD’s decision to host a Confucius Institute had already led to “worrying compromises”, given the Chinese government “does not respect academic freedom on its own soil”.
Maeve Cooke, professor of philosophy, said the changes would effectively "abandon" the core principles set out in UCD's existing policy on academic freedom "whenever they conflict with legislation in other jurisdictions".
The change was a “blatant prioritisation” of the university’s interest in generating income, she said.
Kathleen Lynch, an emeritus professor of equality studies, was also heavily critical of the changes.
They would mean UCD staff lecturing in other countries would not be allowed to research or teach subjects “that contravened the political ideologies of the country where they were teaching”, she said.
Prof Wolfgang Marx, who sits on the university's governing authority, said academic freedom was being "downgraded" from a basic principle to a "legal nicety that needs to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis" and which, he claimed, could be sacrificed if necessary.
“The implementation of this policy would mean UCD’s leadership letting down its people, its core values and its ultimate mission in the most serious way imaginable,” he said.
Prof Anne Fuchs, director of the UCD Humanities Institute, said academic freedom was "not a culturally relative value that can be traded in for commercial interests".
A spokesman for UCD said the working group drawing up the proposed policy change had received feedback from staff and would “revise its recommendations”.
In a recent email to faculty, working group chair Prof Grace Mulcahy said feedback had raised concerns the amendment would “dilute” UCD’s existing policy.
Prof Mulcahy said that “was not the intention” and the working group would no longer be bringing the amendment to UCD’s academic council.