The Four Freedoms of Higher Education

It has been with a mixture of amusement and dread that I’ve been watching recent Brexit developments. Amusement because I find the arguments of most Brexiters, and even some Remainers, devoid of logic and full of the hype that shows politicians at their most foolish. But then the dread sinks in when I think about how these same fools could harm the United Kingdom and Europe in equal measure.

Photo by  Tyler Nix  on  Unsplash

Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

The negotiations seem to be stumbling over the European Union’s four freedoms: the free movement of goods, services, capital, and people. These are the foundations of the European single market without which there simply cannot be a single market. 

The thing about the four freedoms is that they come with heavy responsibilities; if countries want to enjoy these freedoms, they also have to maintain and protect them. The British government’s negotiating position is basically an attempt to circumnavigate these freedoms by gaining access to their benefits without having to accept the reciprocal responsibilities attached to them. The EU is steadfast in its opposition to this weakening of the freedoms, and therein lies the rub. 

Anyways, Brexit and the four freedoms (that sounds like a bad name for a bad band) got me thinking: can we come up with four freedoms for higher education?  Four foundational qualities that are irreducible and non-negotiable? Four ideals that both educators and students share a responsibility to preserve and promote? Here’s my attempt.

Education requires openness and the removal of barriers

Access is essential to higher education. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.” The merit thing sticks in my craw, but I can accept it, especially if we can agree that those who can’t demonstrate the required merit must be afforded opportunities to improve their skills and knowledge to the extent necessary to evince that merit. I can accept that one limitation on “all” because it allows for no other restrictions. All means all, full stop. 

What’s sad is how easy it is to impede access to education. High textbook prices, expensive or inadequate living conditions, lack of academic or emotional support: all of these can put barriers between students and higher learning.  

Education requires the best effort possible

Surely the quality of higher education must also be one of its pillars. Educators have the responsibility to teach to the best of their ability, to be up-to-date in their discipline, and to challenge their students.  Students have responsibilities here, too, however: to take their studies seriously, to meet their instructors halfway, to contribute to the learning process. And institutions have to pull their weight as well by providing the facilities, academic supports, and general conditions necessary to foster and sustain quality.

Education requires curiosity and the courage to question

The thing about the four freedoms is that they come with heavy responsibilities

Now, access to quality higher education is meaningless if that education is not conducted in a spirit of open inquiry. Educators and learners must nurture curiosity in themselves and others. Everyone involved in higher education must be prepared to probe, challenge, question, discuss, and reflect - in short, they have to engage, with themselves, with each other, and with the content being studied. Quality in the higher education realm is just a chimera without inquiry informing the entire mission, and without quality the access is meaningless (what good is access to a subpar education?).

Education requires respect - for each other, for knowledge

Finally, is any of this even remotely possible without an educational culture based on respect? Since higher education plays such an important role in defining and shaping our society, it seems to me that it needs to model respect. That means respect for everyone participating in higher education - respecting their value and dignity as human beings, respecting their voice and contributions. But it also means respecting the knowledge being produced and transmitted. When we respect something, we value it, we cherish it, and we do what we can to sustain it. And we do this by enabling access to higher education, maintaining the quality of that education, and fostering the culture of inquiry.

So, that’s my first pass at creating a “four freedoms of higher education.” If you can improve on them or adapt them to your needs, please do so.

This is the eighth of my nine contributions to the eCampusOntario 9x9x25 challenge.


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