Early career precarity imperils academic freedom – Eurodoc

An umbrella organisation representing nearly a million doctoral candidates and postdocs across Europe has called on academic institutions and governments to improve conditions for early career researchers, suggesting their “precarious existence endangers academic freedom”, which is already under attack in many countries across the continent.

Academic freedom is only as strong as its weakest link and if universities and other academic institutions and governments fail to protect and safeguard their most precarious research employees, then academic freedom as a whole is put at risk, warns Dr Pil Maria Saugmann, secretariat coordinator of the European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers (Eurodoc).

Speaking to University World News on the eve of Eurodoc launching a statement on ensuring academic freedom, Saugmann said: “The voice of early career researchers needs to be heard so we can strengthen academic freedom, not just for ourselves but also for more senior researchers and students and for the institutions that hire us, often on short-term and precarious contracts.”

Saugmann, who recently completed her PhD at Stockholm University, Sweden, told University World News that Eurodoc is an umbrella organisation covering 26 sector-wide bodies representing doctoral candidates and postdoctoral fellows and other early career researchers in 24 European countries.

Its statement on academic freedom is the result of months of consultation with affiliated organisations and a taskforce consisting of early career researchers from all over Europe collaborating closely with the Initiative for Science in Europe, a platform of learned societies and researcher organisations, including Eurodoc.

“It’s our starting point in defending academic freedom,” said Saugmann, who claims academic freedom is being challenged all over Europe.

Government intervention

Eurodoc has already raised its concerns about recurring government intervention in higher education and research institutions in Slovenia affecting academic freedom and autonomy, warning in a press statement issued in 2021 of worrying “interference by the authorities”, including “defunding of public established and independent universities” and “actively promoting among public opinion a biased image of the role of research, researchers and universities and higher education institutions”.

Their latest statement focuses on protecting and enhancing conditions for junior researchers as well as academic freedom, with Saugmann saying: “Academia relies on early career researchers to keep the wheels running. We do much of the teaching and outreach work as well as the academic research and we’re playing a bigger and bigger role in academia, but we’re left out of the formal decision-making and we don’t have the right to be heard that other academic staff and the students enjoy.

“Those of us on short-term temporary contracts can lead a very precarious life and that creates a problem for academic freedom.

“It’s academic freedom that makes academic research so special and it is why people have trust in research coming out universities,” Saugmann told University World News.

However, with short-term contracts and stipends going on for longer and longer and tenure taking longer and longer to reach, “what we are really asking for is that early career researchers have a seat at the table, that their voices are heard and their precarious working conditions are considered and improved”, said Saugmann.

Eurodoc’s statement on ensuring academic freedom opens with a reminder of the Rome Communiqué agreed by the ministers of countries party to the Bologna Process in 2020, defining academic freedom as “the freedom of academic staff and students to engage in research, teaching, learning and communication in and with society without interference nor fear of reprisal”.

However, many doctoral candidates and other early career researchers feel “extremely vulnerable when it comes to reprisals” due to the very nature of their “precarious [employment] positions in academia”, says the Eurodoc statement.

The issue of early career researchers’ precarity has also been taken up by the Initiative for Science in Europe, which published a manifesto last September calling for action from the European Union on this issue. The manifesto was presented to European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth Mariya Gabriel on 10 January 2023.

Recommendations to government institutions

To remedy the situation, Eurodoc makes a number of recommendations, including a number covering academic freedom and government institutions:

• Protection at a constitutional level by seeing academic freedom as an integral part of a democracy which should be protected in each country’s constitution.

• Effective evaluation and monitoring of the state of academic freedom at European and national levels.

• Legislation to support the democratic governance of academic institutions and to ensure politically independent academic leadership.

• Ensuring academic freedom by public funding, either through direct funding or competitive funding programmes, with funding from other sources to be complementary and universities not to rely on such funding to carry out their core mission.

• Research assessment systems used to allocate public funding should be transparent and seen to support equal opportunities, the openness of science and protecting academic freedom.

• Academic institutions to provide reasonable working conditions for academic professionals, including doctoral candidates, early career researchers and other individuals, with professionals employed with sustainable career paths, adequate salaries and full social rights and employment protection.

• Freedom for researchers to publish research results without fear of repercussion, so science being as “open as possible and only as closed as necessary”.

• Rights and obligations to be clearly defined and the implementation monitored accordingly.

Recommendations for academic institutions

As for academic freedom and academic institutions, Eurodoc recommends the following:

• Academic freedom and democracy to be closely tied together, with academic institutions to be governed democratically and transparently.

• Representational rights to be extended to those in precarious positions, such as doctoral candidates and postdoctoral researchers as part of the democratic governance of academic institutions.

• Assessment of the quality of research to be open and transparent, and supporting equal opportunities, interdisciplinary research and allowing for differences within research fields.

• Institutions to enhance the understanding of the importance and scope of academic freedom within their own body of researchers.

• Academic institutions to provide a work environment that ensures that all employees, including researchers, are treated with respect and dignity and that under-represented groups in research are not met by a biased or discriminatory structure.

• Researchers to be encouraged to partake in public debate and bring their expert knowledge to society, with effective training and support provided to those researchers who face hate and threats due to their roles as researchers.

• Researchers to be offered continuous support while conducting research abroad, especially where research must be carried out in authoritarian contexts.

• Open science and freedom to publish where an individual researcher chooses to be seen as part of freedom of speech and academic freedom, while observing the lawful handling of intellectual property rights.

• Academic institutions to explicitly state the meaning of academic freedom, including the entitlements and obligations academic freedom entails for all roles and positions.

As well as calling on governments to protect academic freedom at the constitutional level and the proper monitoring and evaluation of the state of academic freedom, the statement calls for sufficient public funding of research to cover the core of the academic institution’s missions.

As for academic institutions, Eurodoc calls for “enforceable protection of academic freedom of all the individual researchers affiliated with the institution, regardless of their seniority and employment status”.

It also wants to see academic freedom to be made mandatory in institutional codes of conduct and academic institutions to be responsible for providing support and protection to “researchers … prone to harassment from society, peers and management”.

View from Poland

Przemyslaw Mroczkowski, a former president of the Doctoral Candidates’ Union at the University of Warsaw, told University World News: “As a doctoral candidate I warmly welcome the Eurodoc declaration.

“I think it will play a vital role in raising the awareness of us being full-time researchers. Doctoral candidates and early career researchers are an important part of the academic community, so raising issues important for them will make academia a better workplace and create conditions for ground-breaking research.

“I especially appreciate recognition of the issue of work environment conditions. Protection of academic freedom requires some positive actions from the government.

“In the case of Poland, doctoral scholarships can be lower than the national minimum wage and salaries for early career researchers slightly over it. This means that young academicians have to seek other employment opportunities outside of academia and may simply have no time to do the research.

“There is no point in protecting other dimensions of academic freedom if pursuing a scientific career becomes a side-hustle or just a hobby for wealthy people.”

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. Follow @DelaCour_Comms on Twitter. He blogs at