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Russia: Subtle clampdown

EducationWorld March 2020 | International News

One of Russia’s leading universities has banned its academics and students from identifying their institutional position when making public political statements. This ban is being interpreted as a further erosion of academic freedom in the country.

Critics claim that Moscow’s Higher School of Economics (HSE), known for its relatively liberal leanings, has clamped down on dissent in response to its students’ involvement in anti-government protests last summer. On January 25, HSE’s academic council approved new rules which state that “if someone is engaged in political activities, they must do so in the capacity as a private person and not a university employee or student”, according to a university summary of the regulations. “These rules are formulated in such a way to censor statements by students and academics,” says Armen Aramyan, a Ph D student and editor at student publication Doxa.

The new rules mean that if academics or students want to engage in politics — go on demonstrations, publicly support a politician or help with political events — they are now forbidden from identifying themselves as being affiliated with the university. “In practice, this rule means political activism is permissible only outside the university,” says Andrey Lavrov, the HSE’s director for public relations. Instead, academics will be allowed to reveal their job titles only when they stick to ‘analysis’ — in newspaper columns, for example — of their own field of expertise, he explains.

HSE has defended the changes, arguing that they have some parallels with rules at US universities. Tufts University, USA, for example, has a policy where faculty listed as supporters of a politician or policy “should be without mention of institutional affiliation, or with a disclaimer indicating that their actions and statements are their own and not those of the university”.

Yaroslav Kuzminov, HSE’s rector, says academics and students “should behave in a way that is not harmful to the university”. “That’s why our professional opinions should sound more like those of professors speaking rather than like kitchen arguments, which is not uncommon on the Internet,” he argues, defending the changes.

But critics interpret the restrictions as an “act of reprisal” for HSE students’ involvement in protests last summer against the exclusion of opposition candidates from Moscow city elections, at which police arrested more than 1,000 demonstrators.

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