It is often said that no one should underestimate the vital role played by those who guide and educate our youth in a democracy.

Thus, any form of restrictions on the intellectuals and academics may jeopardise the future of our nation. This is because the pursuit of scholarship cannot thrive in an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust.

Therefore, “it is crucial that academicians are granted the freedom to inquire, study, evaluate, and gain new perspectives, as without this freedom, our civilization will stagnate and decline.”

In Bhutan, the question arises: should the country encourage academicians to exercise their right to academic freedom?

There is no simple question. Academic freedom entails the unrestricted liberty of teachers, students, and educational institutions to explore knowledge without unwarranted limitations, encompassing various aspects of knowledge production, teaching, and dissemination, although subject to certain boundaries.

It ensures the unity of teaching and research, allowing students and faculty to enjoy freedom within universities. Academic freedom also holds universities accountable to societal interests, safeguarding their independence from political and economic influences. It enables scholars to explore diverse perspectives, challenge ideas, and contribute to society through critical thinking and innovation.

Globally, academic freedom emerged as early as the 10th century and has been established as an integral part of German, English, French, and American academic cultures.

Notably, it gained prominence in the early 19th century in Europe and America. For instance, in the German tradition, professors are free to present their personal viewpoints and philosophical systems to their students.

Similarly, the United States defines academic freedom through the “1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure,” while in France, academic freedom for university professors is a fundamental principle recognized by law. In Bhutan, Article 7(2) of the Constitution guarantees Bhutanese citizens the right to freedom of speech, opinion, and expression, encompassing academic freedom.

Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) was established in 1951, primarily focusing on advocating for better compensation for faculty members. In 1993, the General Conference of UNESCO expressed concerns about the vulnerability of the academic community to political pressures that could undermine academic freedom.

They emphasised that the right to education, teaching, and research can only be fully enjoyed in an atmosphere of academic freedom and autonomy for higher education institutions. Open communication of findings, hypotheses, and opinions lies at the core of higher education, providing the strongest guarantee of the accuracy and objectivity of scholarship and research.

Thus, while Bhutan’s experience with academic freedom is still in its nascent stage, academic freedom has yet to be fully tested, the author’s personal experience suggests some form of resistance particularly from the state agencies towards divergent viewpoints, including academic freedom. However, it is important to note that these instances may be isolated. But largely, the author enjoyed fairly a reasonable amount of freedom.

Academicians have a responsibility to adhere to a strong code of ethics and express themselves responsibly. The benefits of academic freedom, including fostering democracy, promoting intellectual growth, and enabling evidence-based decision-making, far outweigh any limitations.

Academic freedom is not about unrestricted expression, but rather about generating knowledge to address problems through diverse perspectives and alternatives. Academicians should express and conduct more research to contribute to nation-building by offering differing and alternative views for the nation’s benefit. The state should prioritise policies and establish platforms that uphold academic freedom.

Sonam Tshering

Lawyer, Thimphu

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are author’s own.