Special Report – On academic freedom 

The Government and university representatives guarantee that academic freedom is sound in Macau, while some critics cast a more sceptical eye on it. 

MB March 2021 Special Report | 40 years of (modern) tertiary education

Three years before China published the national security bill for Hong Kong, an international closed-door academic roundtable on Article 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law was held at one of the best-known local universities.

A scholar from Macau’s academic community was present and was scheduled to do a presentation, according to the program that was made public publicly on the Internet.

A few weeks later, Macau Business contacted that professor to find out about the ideas he shared on that occasion and to arrange an interview, however the academic in question apologized a lot and asked us to forget that he was there and opted by not sharing the content of his presentation. 

A couple of years earlier, in 2014, two full-time professors from two local higher education institutions were sacked, a move that seemed to be at least partially related to their political views.

These cases prompted a debate on academic freedom. However, there’s a different understanding as for what that entails. 

“Sometimes mentioning academic freedom is confusing, as we need to define the context of academic freedom. Academic work comprises teaching and research”  – Iu Vai Pan

(Xinhua/Zhu Xiang)

As former UM rector, Iu Vai Pan states in the interview published in this special report that “academic freedom is a sensitive and tricky topic.” Professor Iu understands that “sometimes mentioning academic freedom is confusing, as we need to define the context of academic freedom. Academic work comprises teaching and research. University professors teach according to the curriculum/content stipulated for a particular course, and they cannot change the content arbitrarily as it is not professional. Research relies on funding support, which can be limited or restricted or prioritized.” The Professor added, citing his own example: “As an engineering professor, I do not see any real academic freedom issues. As I said, academic freedom issue is tricky.”

His former UM colleague Hao Zhidong has a different point of view.

In 2015, Professor Hao published a study indicating that “more than a third of college and university faculty in Macau have little job security as part-timers and about half, as indicated by the lack of a Ph.D., are not fully professionalized. They therefore do not enjoy the kind of professional autonomy and academic freedom which faculty are expected, according to Western traditions, to enjoy.” As there is no tenure system in Macau, the study states that one can argue that “even full-time faculty have no job security and consequently do not enjoy much academic freedom”.

“Even full-time faculty have no job security and consequently do not enjoy much academic freedom” – Hao Zhidong

“The faculty are docile, withdrawn, alienated, and demoralized despite being well-paid, with good benefits and conference and research grants,” also wrote Hao Zhidong, concluding: “Docile and obedient faculty lead to a docile student body, and together they create a passive learning environment. There are no faculty or student forums on controversial issues, political or otherwise.”

UM Vice Rector for Global Affairs Rui Martins, who held the Research portfolio for over 20 years, regards academic freedom from a different lens. In a 2019 interview with TDM Canal Macau, he underlined that academic freedom is primarily related to scientific research. In that respect, Professor Martins noted that in the case of the UM there haven’t been restrictions with regards to the topics for the research proposals, which are assessed based on their scientific merits. He highlighted that over the years many research projects on the political situation in Macau, Hong Kong and Taiwan were financed, including several led by Hao Zhidong.

In another interview, aired last September by TDM Radio Macau, Rui Martins also stressed that lecturers should avoid openly expressing their political views in the classroom, something that is also valid in the West, he added. 

On critical thinking

The Education and Youth Affairs Bureau (DSEJ) decided to replace the term previously used for ‘critical (批判)  thinking’ with a ‘the ability to examine and distinguish’ (審辨) when mentioning the developments of local youth’s critical analysis in the Chinese version of the Macau Youth Policy (2021-2030) public consultation document.

The head of DSEJ’s youth department, Cheong Man Fai, explained that the Chinese term is hitherto used (批判) as the equivalent to the English term “critical,” carrying “implications of negation, opposition, defiance and conflict.” Secretary for Social Affairs and Culture Elsie Ao Ieong also defended the change, maintaining that the Chinese term for critical thinking used in the previous blueprint had a “negative connotation” and saying the local youth was encouraged to criticise the local government “not in a scolding, violent way” but in a constructive way, giving suggestions on how issues can be improved.

“When the statement is made by a top government official, it gives the public the impression that they want to avoid criticizing the government. Secretary Ao Ieong seems to appeal to the young people, not merely criticizing the government and trying to avoid the generation of anti-government views in our society,” according to Eilo Yu Wing-yat, Associate Professor of Government and Public Administration at the University of Macau.

In the Long-Term Plan for Tertiary Education (2021-2030) it is stated that “the students’ knowledge will be reinforced, with regards to the national and regional situation and the international environment, and feelings of love for their country and Macau will also be cultivated.”

At the presentation of the document, Chan Kun Hong, then-Deputy Director of the Higher Education Bureau, was asked whether patriotic education at universities could limit the institutions’ autonomy. “We have always emphasized that institutions [should] have autonomy without breaking the law. The directors of the institutions have repeatedly stressed that there is this academic freedom, and in our legislation academic freedom is very clear,” said Hong, adding that “if in a class [the students] start to dwell on ideas that might bother the class or other students, that is another question and this is not about academic freedom.”