Academic freedom – Heart of the higher education project

The concepts of academic freedom and university autonomy are sometimes invoked in situations where they don’t apply and ignored in situations where they do apply. To understand them, we should recall the foundations, reasoning and spirit of the documents that shaped the discourses around them.

Violations of student rights and academic freedom are severe abuses of the fundamental values of the European Higher Education Area. These principles, which are laid down in Magna Charta Universitatum of 1988 and the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers Recommendation (CM/Rec(2012)7) on the responsibility of public authorities for academic freedom and institutional autonomy, are an integral part of the Bologna Process and are being discussed in the lead-up to the Ministerial Conference in Paris in 2018.

As described by the Magna Charta Observatory, “academic freedom is the foundation for the independent search for truth and a barrier against undue intervention by both government and interest groups”, while university autonomy is “a prerequisite for the effective and efficient operation of modern universities”.

It is quite clear now that this “independent search for truth” is absolutely vital if we do not want to live in an alienated and fragmented world of ‘alternative facts’, half-truths and normalisation of lies. Freedom of inquiry and free speech by students and faculty members is essential to the mission of the academy.

It is also essential to regain the trust that many marginalised groups have lost in institutions – which they view as ‘elites’ disconnected from people’s everyday concerns – and to foster inclusion and open dialogue. The alternative to building this trust is living in societies with an increased risk of radicalisation, violence and extremism.

Free speech is not hate speech

As in society at large, it is important to make it clear that free speech in academia does not mean the right to harass, humiliate or discriminate. It does not mean hate speech, xenophobia and racism.

Academic freedom is both a right and a responsibility to create evidence-based solutions for a more just and sustainable society. It relies on a balance that can only be provided through consultations involving students, public authorities, higher education institutions, the academic community of staff and all other stakeholders.

Undue government interventions in university life are still a reality in countries with insecure leaders. Academic communities are targeted for repression due to their ability to shape discourses and challenge the status quo.

Students or professors attempting to communicate ideas that are inconvenient to the government, political parties or interest groups, are vilified, lose their jobs or are even imprisoned. Students are threatened with repression if they participate in protests, are imprisoned or just disappear mysteriously.

Students imprisoned in Belarus

When Belarus entered the European Higher Education Area or EHEA in May 2015, students still experienced crackdowns on their rights to organise and to protest peacefully. A serious breach of academic freedom is the fact that higher education institutions threaten students planning to protest with expulsion, lower their grades or take other repressive measures, such as imprisonment.

The European Students’ Union widely condemns these authoritarian measures that have no place in the EHEA. We are closely following the trial and any kind of violations will be brought to the attention of the Bologna Follow-Up Group and other intergovernmental bodies.

No advocacy for corporate or other interests

Another example of undue intervention from interest groups is the trend towards commodification of higher education and the idea that education should serve mainly labour market purposes instead of societal needs.

These trends threaten to compromise quality and equity and the principle of higher education being a public good and a public responsibility. They treat students as consumers in a market of knowledge and skills and as human resources in the race to get and stay on board in the fast-changing labour market.

Setting aside the obvious inclusion and debt issues that frustrate many, this rhetoric stands clearly in opposition with the humanist view of academia as an arena for critical thinking and democratic participation, where students are equal partners in the education process, can co-create curricula and decide on the future they want instead of ‘buying’ it.

We must consider the mission of autonomous academics and higher education institutions. That mission is not to produce conveyer belt workers for the job market; it is not to produce study programmes for consumers; and it is definitely not advocacy for corporate or any other private interests.

We need to agree that the mission of academia and higher education institutions is the production of new scientific knowledge, the education of citizens who are capable of reasonable thinking and exceptional problem solving and the progress of science itself. This is the kind of higher education which will produce students and faculty with the critical thinking skills necessary to step up to the responsibility of safeguarding university autonomy and academic freedom.

Alexandra Antonescu is communications manager of the European Students’ Union. Lea Meister is president of the European Students’ Union.