Legislation on academic freedom set to be strengthened

Leaders of universities and academic organisations in Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland are pushing for either introducing or reintroducing academic freedom into academic legislation amid rising concern that academic freedom is being eroded around the world.

Professor of Law at the University of Oslo, Hans Petter Graver, told Norwegian online newspaper for education Khrono that he thinks the discussion around grounding academic freedom in the constitution, which first arose in talks on reforming the constitution in 2014, should be taken up again.

He spoke at a seminar in Oslo on 21 October where Junior Minister in the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research Aase Marthe Johansen Horrigmo, together with top leaders at the National Research Council and several higher education institutions, discussed the issue of “Academic freedom under pressure”.

Horrigmo spoke on “Academic freedom – Why is it so important?”, while the Executive Director of the Research Council of Norway, John-Arne Røttingen, addressed the issue, “Is research funding challenging academic freedom?”.

On the same day Norwegian Minister of Research and Higher Education Henrik Asheim said that he was worried that an increasingly politicised climate might lead to academic freedom being weakened and felt that it must not be taken as a given.

He said that he is in favour of the Bonn Declaration on Freedom of Scientific Research that Norway will support.

“This means Norway will work for ring-fencing academic freedom around the world,” Asheim said.

Sweden: Process towards new legislation

In Sweden, the government is digesting 97 responses to a consultation sent out in May for a proposal to re-introduce academic freedom in university law as of 1 July 2021 if endorsed by parliament. The majority of the responses endorse the governmental proposal.

Sweden took wording on academic freedom out of university law in 2007 and the government committee on the structuring of universities in 2018-19 proposed to reintroduce a specific paragraph on it.

On 5 May this year, the committee followed this up with a 27-page pro memoria on “Changes in university law to support academic freedom and make higher education’s role in lifelong learning more transparent”.

In the pro memoria the government warns: “Academic freedom is under threat. In Europe and other parts of the world universities’ and university colleges’ role as an independent and critical force in society is being threatened on a par with the freedom to research and educate.

“As the governmental committee states, universities have been forced to reduce their activities because they are regarded as contradicting the values of those in power.”

Even in Sweden, universities have reported increasing threats and hatred against scientists.

In a survey carried out by the Swedish Government Office for Public Services (2018), 21 out of 26 universities said that there is a risk that researchers will be exposed to harassment, threats and violence.

At the same time as the need for scientifically grounded knowledge is increasing, the preconditions for scientists to take part in debates in society have been radically altered by the internet and social media and thresholds have been lowered for those who want to set limits on free speech, they said.

“Disinformation, propaganda and hatred on the internet today are spread faster and more easily than ever before, not least by individuals and groups that are resisting an open and democratic society.”

Solid endorsement

The major effect of the Swedish government asking institutions for comments on their pro memoria is that it has spurred hundreds of top institutional leaders to thinking about, discussing and commenting on the issue of academic freedom.

The Swedish Association of Teachers and Researchers (SULF) said it “strongly endorses” the push to ensure that academic freedom permeates “research, education and all activities at universities”.

“This is especially important in a time when we see a reduction of academic freedom internationally. Sweden ought to serve as a role model for a free academy as one of the foundations of a democracy.

“We see threats against academic freedom in Hungary where the Central European University was forced to move out of the country to be able to continue research and higher education on a scientific basis.”

The situation has deteriorated in Poland, Serbia and the Czech Republic, SULF said.

“In Turkey, academic freedom is close to zero and university teachers are witnessing a hard government-directed research and education,” SULF said.

Denmark: Pressure against researchers

In an op ed article in the summer, Camilla Gregersen, president of the Danish Association of Masters and PhDs (DM), which has 50,000 members, highlighted two concrete cases in which the funders did not like the research reports they had paid for and asked the researchers not to publish.

A survey among 5,000 of the DM members found that 13% of researchers felt pressed either to change, delay or withdraw the publishing of their research results. And, notably, 24% of scientists making analyses and reports for ministries and institutions reported facing such pressure.

“This is a problem and the problem has to be lifted higher on the political agenda and academic freedom has to be secured by the law,” Gregersen argued.

In the DM survey, 67% said that their immediate research leader was defending their research freedom, but only 35% reported feeling that legislation secured their academic freedom sufficiently, Gregersen argued.

She referred to a letter by the Danish Minister of Higher Education and Science, Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen, sent to the other ministries in November 2019 in which she sharpened the quest for government authorities to respect the independence of researchers when the authorities are ordering research tasks and funding them.

According to the letter, university rectors at Danish universities told the minister in a meeting that some of their researchers had reported that they had felt pressure to publish certain findings when they were collaborating with central government.

Gregersen said that she welcomes this initiative from the minister, but that it is not sufficient with regard to the researchers’ academic freedom and that stronger legislation and better working conditions are needed for researchers.

On the development towards new legislation in Sweden, Gregersen told University World News: “It is absolutely good news that Sweden is considering strengthening the protection of academic freedom in their legislation.

“It is for sure very much needed in the Danish context as well.”

She said DM has been critical of the weak protection of academic freedom in the law since the changes in the Danish University Law were passed in 2003.

She pointed to Professor Terence Karran’s analysis of compliance between national university systems and the international standards set in UNESCO’s recommendation concerning the status of higher education teaching personnel and said Denmark and the UK are among the countries with the weakest protection, “so we definitely need improved juridical protection in Denmark – perhaps even more than in Sweden”.

Agneta Bladh, who was secretary of state in Sweden (1998-2004) and special investigator for internationalisation in higher education in 2017-18, told University World News: “All Nordic countries have similar legislation recognising academic freedom or research freedom. Finland and Sweden also have this freedom expressed in the constitution.

“It mostly concerns research issues in all countries, but some Nordics have also freedom connected to the teaching situation. In Sweden, the research freedom is clearly expressed both in the constitution and in the higher education legislation.”

She said that, in Sweden, the legislation says the following general principles shall apply to research:

• Research issues may be freely selected;

• Research methodologies may be freely developed; and

• Research results may be freely published.

However, she said similar wording has not existed for teaching and learning in Sweden.

“Academic freedom has been discussed frequently in the Nordic countries during recent years. Not least in Sweden. How come? Obviously, there has been a gap between the legislation on academic freedom and the need to have higher education institutions as effective means for promoting a democratic society.

“Different kinds of threats towards the democratic society have increased in many democracies in recent years, which include the higher education sector. This development might explain why many politicians want the legislation to be sharpened in Sweden.”

She said the current proposal from the Swedish government for a strengthened legislation on academic freedom is an important sign towards protecting both democratic and academic values.

“You can say that universities as the guardians of a democratic society have come more into focus lately,” she said. Formerly, the focus was very much on how universities could contribute to the growth and prosperity in the business sector and society at large. “Nowadays, important fundamental values for democratic societies have come to the fore.”

She added that it is a Swedish tradition to send proposed legislation for hearing to a broad spectrum of Swedish society, not only those most concerned. “The answers might give a good perception of what kind of values Swedish society is embedding.”