State of play of academic freedom in Europe – A political choice

The United Kingdom government is fond of indicators and other forms of comparison. Except, and especially since Brexit, when it comes to the European Union. So the UK government may not be interested in a report to the European Parliament just published on academic freedom in the 27 member states.

But for UK academia this report, State of Play of Academic Freedom in the EU Member States: Overview of de facto trends and developments, could be of immediate interest in terms of unpacking the complexities around academic freedom.

The badly drafted Freedom of Speech Bill, making its way through the UK parliament, risks conflating academic freedom issues with freedom of speech to the detriment of universities.

Of wider interest is that this report, commissioned by a major political institution, suggests a way forward to make academic freedom better respected. Compiled by researchers at the University of Oslo, led by Peter Maassen, it provides parliamentarians with a clear conceptualisation and policy options.

The report conceptualises linkages between the ideas of academic freedom and some of the essential institutional factors for academic freedom to be respected in practice.

A track record on academic freedom

Over the last few years academic freedom has forced itself onto the agenda of several intergovernmental and stakeholder bodies.

The European Higher Education Area (EHEA) ministerial declaration of 2018, reinforced in 2020, was unequivocal in its defence of academic freedom. The ministers suspended Russian and Belarus membership of the EHEA. The European Research Area has taken on board a German declaration on the conditions for scientific freedom.

But intergovernmental bodies, however strong they are as networks, can do little if governments show no inclination to follow through. The same goes for UNESCO and for the Magna Charta Observatory, which has rewritten its declaration on academic freedom. Governments have no obligation to listen.

The report to the European Parliament’s scientific foresight body breaks the mould. Its starting point is the distinction between a de jure or legally embedded recognition of academic freedom and widespread worry in academic communities about the erosion of de facto academic freedom.

Arguing that academic freedom does not exist in a vacuum, the researchers have compiled reports on the higher education systems of the 27 European Union states and the ways in which they do or do not respect academic freedom in real life situations: in the degree of academic self-governance they offer, in the conditions for academic labour and financial provisions that support it and, above all, in institutional autonomy.

The exercise of academic freedom is crucially linked to its institutional setting. It is the institution that has the key responsibility for creating and maintaining the conditions under which academic freedom can be exercised in university life.

The reports on the systems in each of the 27 countries are detailed. They are buttressed by the European University Association surveys of the wider issue of university autonomy, the latest of which has just been published, and by the – sometimes – alternative conclusions of the Academic Freedom Index.

More originally, and highly effectively, the researchers have delved into country-relevant news reports of the higher education press and key scholarship.

Four general trends

The authors detect four general trends.

The first is political interference in determining which academic fields are scientific and which are not. Hungary is the key case here.

A second is interference from government or political parties in threatening institutional autonomy, a threat that is worrying academics in Belgium, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden. But as the researchers wryly note, some of the loudest criticism comes from academics wishing to deflect attention from other issues, including corruption.

A third threat comes from within institutions.

The fourth comes from civil society and is seen as particularly threatening. As the researchers note, traditionally there has been a form of pact, or social contract, between universities and the wider society that has enabled universities to survive many ups and downs.

But the increased frequency of incidents in which wider society contests the legitimacy of the university could bode ill. The way in which some academics presenting unwelcome research during COVID-19 were harassed is an example.

A political choice

The country reports are a mine of information since they are sufficiently precise to point to infringements or not of academic freedom being a political choice.

Hungary, not surprisingly, is at one end of the spectrum for the massive intervention of its politically hostile government. Its university governing councils are now, notoriously, political appointees. Neighbouring Bulgaria is more a case of talking the talk with model legislation on academic freedom, something that is judged by academics to be unrealistic.

Another neighbour, the Czech Republic, comes out well: it has a strong legal framework for the defence of academic freedom and few instances of violation.

In Western Europe, Italy having been a byword for corruption and nepotism, is seen as having made efforts to combat its weaknesses and is among the better performers. France is seen as a case apart. Legally, its universities have relatively little autonomy. But it scores relatively well on de facto academic freedom.

Denmark, having been on the slide due to its 2003 university autonomy law, which weakened the position of academics in university governance and boosted opportunities for external interests, has more recently engaged key academic stakeholders in dialogue with a view to revision.

Finland, as in many other comparative studies, such as the OECD’s most recent PISA report, is a star. The governance of Finnish higher education institutions is notable for strong stakeholder participation. Nevertheless, it too has faced civil society threats.

The report makes suggestions for how the European Parliament could embed academic freedom as an issue in which the European Union could lead the world. Its scientific foresight panel is well placed to bring together academics, students, institutional leaders and managers, politicians and civil servants to debate what to do next.

The researchers suggest that the European Parliament could develop an independent academic monitoring procedure complementing existing initiatives. It could fill a gap by setting up a clearing house for monitoring academic initiatives. Or it could set up a European Platform for Academic Freedom. And it could stimulate and support research.

In fact, that is the job of the European Commission. But having the weight of the European Parliament behind some institutional initiatives to support the cause would highlight just how important academic freedom is for the universities, for society at large and for European democracy.

Anne Corbett is a senior associate at LSE Consulting, United Kingdom.