Academic freedom, institutional autonomy and democracy

Higher education is essential to societies and an important part of its contribution is linked to its democratic mission. The academic community fulfils this mission through its impact on broader society as well as through teaching, learning and research.

Higher education is essential to developing a culture of democracy: a set of attitudes and behaviours without which democratic institutions, laws and elections would not practically function.

Higher education institutions should encourage voting but should also develop the will and ability in students to engage in public spaces through democratic participation and deliberation.

The competencies required for a democratic culture, for which the Council of Europe has developed a Reference Framework, comprise a set of attitudes and behaviours that seek resolution of conflicts through dialogue; accept that while majorities decide, minorities have certain inalienable rights; see diversity of background and opinion as a strength rather than as a threat; and recognise that decisions should be based on the best facts available.

No part of society should be better placed to fight the current hollow cries of “fake news” and “alternative facts”.

Academic freedom and institutional autonomy

Higher education can only fulfil its mission if it enjoys academic freedom and institutional autonomy.

The link between democracy and these fundamental values of higher education – to use the language of the European Higher Education Area – was the topic of the Global Forum organised by the Council of Europe; the International Consortium for Higher Education, Civic Responsibility and Democracy; the Organisation of American States; the Magna Charta Observatory; and the International Association of Universities, and held at Council of Europe headquarters in Strasbourg on 20-21 June.

There are several reasons why the 2019 Global Forum focused on academic freedom and institutional autonomy. The immediate background is increasing concern that the values we have come to take for granted are now under threat in ways Europe and North America have not seen, at least since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In the declaration it adopted, the Global Forum recalled that: “Significant violations of academic freedom and institutional autonomy threaten democracy. Sadly, their frequency is on the rise.

“Public authorities and the academic community alike must be vigilant in addressing and challenging such violations, and the responsibility for doing so does not stop at institutional or national borders. An attack on the freedom of one member of the academic community or the autonomy of one institution is an attack on the fundamental values of our democracies, regardless of where it takes place.”

A trans-Atlantic perspective

While concern about the state of academic freedom and institutional autonomy is near universal, the most salient issues vary between countries and continents.

For example, the focus in the United States is largely on academic freedom and its relationship to the right to free speech on campus, most recently prompted by the alt-right movement. In Europe, the focus has so far largely been institutional autonomy.

The European and US views of the proper role of public authorities in higher education diverge significantly, which makes a trans-Atlantic dialogue important in itself. The dialogue is also important to develop considerations beyond the traditional European emphasis on institutional autonomy primarily as an issue of the legal relationship between public authorities and higher education institutions.

Neither academic freedom nor institutional autonomy can exist unless a country’s laws allow them to do so, as we have seen for example with the Central European University.

Nevertheless, laws alone do not ensure democratic practice. Academic freedom and institutional autonomy are developed and safeguarded through practice. European and US academics, policy-makers and institutional and political leaders need to develop a more advanced understanding of the many nuances involved.

A focus on institutional autonomy also implies assessing the proper role of public authorities. At least in Europe, public authorities have a clear responsibility for the education system and an attachment to public funding of higher education is strong.

In Europe, it would generally be seen as proper for public authorities to ensure higher education provision in all parts of the country or provision in academic areas considered of particular importance. It would, however, not be considered proper for public authorities to give instructions on the details of study programmes or curricula, including those established in priority areas to meet newly identified needs.

The financing of higher education also has an impact on both academic freedom and institutional autonomy. If a single funder finances a high proportion of an institution’s budget, this puts the funder in a position where they could exercise considerable influence.

Funding conditions also matter: funding may be given as a lump sum with few or no conditions attached or it may be given on strictly specified conditions that may extend to limiting the right to make research results public or it may influence the content of study programmes or the hiring of faculty.

A call to action

Paradoxically, academic freedom and institutional autonomy depend to some extent on public authorities refraining from taking certain kinds of action. However, this is not just a question of non-action. On the contrary, it is important for public authorities, the academic community, higher education institutions and others to take positive action to safeguard and further the fundamental values of higher education.

The Global Forum declaration outlines a set of actions each group of stakeholders could and should take. These include a call on members of the academic community and their organisations to provide society with factually-based knowledge and to base their own participation in public debate on the same standards of truthfulness, open-mindedness and respect that should permeate their academic work.

The declaration asks institutional leaders to commit to maintaining, developing and sustaining the public purpose and social responsibility of higher education as well as to exploring the role and meaning of academic freedom and institutional autonomy within their respective institutions and systems.

It calls on public authorities to set the framework for academic freedom and institutional autonomy and to monitor their implementation; to take due account of the principles of academic freedom and institutional autonomy in developing regulations and policies in other areas of public responsibility; and to provide strong public funding as a basic requirement for autonomy and academic freedom.

Some action should be taken by both public authorities and institutions, notably to create and maintain the conditions for academics to enjoy freedom of research, learning and teaching as well as the freedom to engage in public debate based on their academic work; to create and maintain an atmosphere of vigorous and respectful debate within their institutions and higher education systems; and to ensure faculty, staff and students the freedom to teach, learn and research, including through secure employment conditions, without the fear of disciplinary action, dismissal or any other form of retribution.

A continued priority

The Global Forum on academic freedom, institutional autonomy and the future of democracy was held at the headquarters of a European institution devoted to democracy, human rights and the rule of law and co-organised by two international institutions and three NGOs with roots in the academic community.

Safeguarding and developing democracy will require continued cooperation between public authorities and civil society, including the academic community. The deterioration of academic freedom and institutional autonomy in several countries threatens not only the quality of higher education but democracy itself.

Sjur Bergan is head of the Council of Europe’s Education Department and a long-time contributor to the development of the European Higher Education Area. Ira Harkavy is chair of the Steering Group of the International Consortium for Higher Education, Civic Responsibility and Democracy and associate vice president and founding director of the Barbara and Edward Netter Center for Community Partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania, United States.