Academia needs to be ready to defend its freedom

When I started working at the University of Oslo 10 years ago, the university’s involvement with Scholars at Risk was on my list of responsibilities. Scholars at Risk is an international network of more than 450 higher education institutions, cooperating to protect threatened scholars and promote academic freedom.

When I started working with Scholars at Risk, my role as the University of Oslo's representative to the network was considered a small task concerning solidarity with individual scholars in far-away countries. It was difficult for a European scholar to connect the fate of these scholars to his or her own situation. In Norway academic freedom was mostly taken for granted.

Today the situation is different; European universities see that academic freedom is under attack both in our neighbouring countries and at home. The scholar who is at risk could be your partner from Turkey in your Horizon 2020 research project. Academic freedom is on everybody’s lips and a topic in many conferences, including the European University Association Annual Conference this coming week (6-7 April).

Challenges to academic freedom can stem from funding systems for research and education as well as from political priorities. It is becoming obvious that a sudden change in a national government of any given country can have a serious impact on the level of autonomy and academic freedom of universities, scholars and students.

Recent changes in Turkey and in the United States are eye-opening examples of how quickly the environment for academic freedom can change. Scholars at Risk is currently receiving more applications for assistance than it has ever had in its 17-year history. The office now receives 70-80 applications per month from threatened scholars around the world. Since January 2016, the organisation has received more than 500 applications from Turkey alone.

Welcoming refugees

As part of joint efforts to address the current crisis and raise further awareness of the importance of academic freedom, the University of Oslo is coordinating the Academic Refuge Erasmus+ Strategic Partnership. The partners are Scholars at Risk, the UNICA Network of Universities from the Capitals of Europe and the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. The European University Association and the European Association for International Education are associate partners.

Through this project, we examine the preconditions necessary for academic freedom and for higher education values to flourish and connect these broader questions to the ongoing work in support of individual academics and students facing severe threats to their lives and their work.

The project therefore combines a focus on academic freedom and other basic university values with training on welcoming refugees and threatened scholars to campus.

The rector of the University of Oslo, Ole Petter Ottersen, has been a proud supporter of academic freedom from the start. From the beginning, he talked about the Scholars at Risk engagement of the university as an act of solidarity while he is now highlighting how the scholars we host enrich and deepen our own understanding of the challenges to academic freedom in the world.

Freedom and democracy on campus

University democracy can be seen as a safeguard of academic freedom. In ‘peacetime’, some argue that we might get better leaders if they are appointed, but when society really needs critical voices, elected leaders may be an insurance against academic freedom violations.

One argument against elected leaders is that very few staff and students participate in elections, but I see this as a sign of trust in the candidates for election rather than mistrust. If more was at stake, the participation would most probably increase.

This week the election process begins for a new rector at the University of Oslo following Professor Ottersen’ s completion of his allowed two periods. We have seen a lively debate with the two candidates on social media, with individuals and groups of students and staff asking the candidates questions, for example, about university values, human resource development, international cooperation and educational quality and the candidates having to explain their ideas and plans, like politicians.

Academic freedom supporter club

Democratic rights such as the right of assembly and freedom of speech of students are not obvious in all countries. In March Norwegian students started an academic freedom supporter club, running around campus singing and cheering in support of students’ rights and the Students at Risk programme for expelled student activists.

Recent examples from Turkey and the US show us that academia needs to be prepared for sudden political changes in government and for the possible impact of such changes on academic freedom.

The Scholars at Risk network combines support to individual scholars and students with promoting academic freedom generally. We cannot take such freedom for granted. When individual scholars and students are threatened, the whole of academia is threatened, and if academia is silenced, larger society is at risk.

Marit Egner is the institutional contact person for Scholars at Risk at the University of Oslo, a member of the steering committee of the Scholars at Risk – Norway Section and the project coordinator of the Academic Refuge Erasmus+ Strategic Partnership. She is speaking at the European University Association Annual Conference on 6-7 April.