Academic Freedom
Bureaucratic and legal threats by governments, weaponising the law to control the curriculum and curtail critical analysis, anti-intellectual, populist and authoritarian rhetorical attacks and crackdowns on professors and their expertise, as well as increasing pressure to self-censor, have put academic freedom in decline worldwide.
Academic freedom in universities in Africa has dipped significantly in the recent past as a result of threats by political systems, according to researchers. According to them, violations against academic freedom have become a common phenomenon across public universities in Africa.
On 16 March librarians and academics at universities and research institutions in several countries received notices that some access to China’s largest database of academic papers would be ‘temporarily’ curtailed from 1 April. The notifications arrived without clarifying how long this would be.
Over the past decade, academic freedom has declined in more than 22 countries, including India, China, Mexico, the United Kingdom and the United States, according to the Academic Freedom Index: Update 2023, which claims to be the ‘first comprehensive overview of academic freedom worldwide’.
Suppression of freedom of speech and free elections are acknowledged as warning signs of democratic erosion. It is time for us to recognise attacks on academic freedom in a similar fashion and strengthen understandings of academic freedom as a foundational element of democracy.
An 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, arguing that their precarious existence endangers academic freedom, which is already under attack in many European countries.
Michael Ignatieff, former vice-chancellor of the Central European University or CEU, says the way CEU was forced out of Hungary by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is serving as a script for today’s culture war on universities in Florida and Governor Ron DeSantis’s re-election last fall and presidential ambitions for 2024.
Too many external restrictions and ‘excessive and unnecessary’ interference from governance arrangements are preventing universities from realising their full potential, according to the European University Association’s latest Autonomy Scorecard, which compares 35 higher education systems across the continent for university autonomy.
Singapore universities’ contribution to the country’s intellectual life is more modest than their outstanding global competitiveness might suggest because of a structure of incentives and disincentives that has nudged individuals and institutions away from public-facing scholarship that could illuminate key issues facing society.
Key drivers behind pervasive and at times deadly attacks on scholars and students worldwide include not just overt conflicts but also oppressive tactics by authorities, constricting the freedom to question. Some important examples can be found in West and South Asia, where attacks often go under-reported.
The Scholars at Risk Network, in its latest Free to Think report, has called on the international community, governments and universities to improve reporting of attacks on higher education and threats to academic freedom, and research into their causes and impacts and potential responses.
Attacks on scholars, students, academic freedom and tertiary education institutions remain pervasive in Africa, with a high frequency of incidents undermining higher education in countries such as Egypt, Ethiopia and Nigeria, according to Scholars at Risk, a network that provides sanctuary to threatened academics around the world and campaigns for freedom to think.
Salma al-Shehab, a PhD student at Leeds University in the United Kingdom and lecturer at a university in Saudi Arabia, has been sentenced to 34 years in prison in Saudi Arabia for tweets in support of greater freedoms and human rights and those who advocate them. Human rights organisations described the sentence as a “dangerous precedent”.
The rector of the Central European University, or CEU, has called for the immediate release of a CEU masters student engaged in research into women’s reproductive rights, who was given a three-year sentence for ‘spreading false news’ by an Egypt court on 4 July.
Academics fear that the incoming chief executive for Hong Kong, a former secretary for security who oversaw the authoritarian crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 2019 and is known for his loyalty to Beijing, will adopt an even harsher line towards universities.
What is happening now in Russian universities – where Russian academics must either abstain from calling the war ‘the war’ or face a punishment with up to 15 years in prison – shows the need to redouble our efforts to protect all universities against the threat of totalitarianism.
The recent dismissals of academics and senior leaders at Bogazici University represent an authoritarian attack on free speech and democratic values with wide-ranging consequences for academic freedom, as the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is trying to establish a clear chain of command over universities.
The removal of major artworks and memorials on Hong Kong university campuses commemorating the June 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre of pro-democracy student protesters in Beijing is a violation of freedoms and university autonomy and an attempt to censor memories and debate, Hong Kong students say.
The state of academic freedom in Bangladesh is worrying, said the Scholars at Risk this week. The global network is “concerned about attacks on scholars’ and students’ peaceful, expressive activity” and called on the authorities to commit to protecting and promoting academic freedom and institutional autonomy.
Universities in Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti, Madagascar, Nigeria and Yemen have been highlighted as institutions where academics or students have been killed because of their beliefs or activism in the past academic year, in a just-published report from international campaign group Scholars at Risk.
The international academic network Scholars at Risk published its annual Free to Think report on 9 December. It describes a disturbing litany of attacks on academic freedom. While life on many campuses around the world may be safe and enriching, for academics and students in scores of countries, having a curious and critical mind and a social conscience can be a dangerous thing.
Our current ‘free speech’ model of academic freedom is grounded in law and is too restrictive and passive. We need a new model, located within professionals exercising their independent judgment, that broadens the definition and is not limited to what academics can and cannot say.
The use of force, arrests, mass suspensions and dismissals, campus raids and occupations, and other coercive legal actions by the military and police against students and scholars since the February 2021 military coup “represent a resounding attack on the human rights, academic freedom and institutional autonomy” of higher education in Myanmar, said Scholars at Risk this week.
Several African governments are restricting and curtailing the freedom of movement of academics and students through targeted actions, policies and practices that have frustrated the free flow of ideas, according to a report by Scholars at Risk on academic freedom and open public discourse.
Academic freedom continued to be eroded in India during 2021 against the backdrop of a years-long crackdown on dissent under the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. More than a dozen scholars have been prosecuted under anti-terror laws.
An unremitting and destructive deluge of attacks on scholars, students and higher education institutions around the world – 332 in 65 countries over the past year – is described in the latest report by Scholars at Risk published this week. The incidents range from laws restricting discussion to armed raids on campuses and assassinations.
Higher education has a vital role to play in actively, aggressively defending democracy – not just because it is the right thing to do, but because otherwise the rise of authoritarian, anti-knowledge movements will put democracy at further risk and threaten higher education itself.
The University of Florida is struggling to diffuse the furore over its attempt to prohibit three professors from testifying as expert witnesses in a voting rights lawsuit against the state of Florida, fundamentally damaging the relationship between the university as an institution and academic freedom.
Hong Kong higher education may be thriving under a regime that is willing to pay for the research and development that it needs in order to stay in power, but from an academic freedom point of view, what is left is a regime-directed factory of higher education.
The article titled ‘What is the fate of Hong Kong’s universities under Xi?’ has shown a profound misunderstanding of the higher education system in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. The government treasures academic freedom and institutional autonomy, says Hong Kong’s secretary for education.
The significance of scholars and intellectuals to support democratic institutions in African societies and “speak truth to power” – as enabled by academic freedom – has been reiterated in a study at a time when democracy has been under attack in several countries on the continent.
Universities in Hong Kong have undergone a significant change in their governance and management under Xi Jinping’s presidency which impinges on academic freedom. The future under the constraints of the National Security Law is unclear, but the city-state’s universities will never be the same.
“My political freedom is unlikely to endure long if I’m unwilling to defend your freedom,” Michael Ignatieff, former rector of the Central European University, which was forced out of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, told the inaugural lecture of the University of Ottawa’s Global Ideas Lecture series.
The cancellation of events at two German universities promoting a book on China’s leader Xi Jinping, allegedly due to pressure from Chinese diplomats, has reopened the debate about university-hosted Chinese Confucius Institutes and renewed calls for government funding of more independent China research at universities.
Academic freedom is – or should be – central to the functioning of universities in all but those countries with repressive governments. Nowhere, however, are there more skirmishes about the meaning of ‘academic freedom’– and the practical consequences of its definition – than in the United States.
The House of Representatives of the Philippines has unanimously approved a bill to ensure state security forces will not be allowed to enter any of the University of the Philippines’ eight campuses without prior notice, eliminating a key hurdle on the bill’s path to becoming law.
Hand in hand with the retreat of democracy over the past decade in parts of Africa and Asia, many post-colonial universities are only pretending to encourage critical thinking, in an effort to do better in university rankings, while remaining dominated by ‘state-think’.
While Singapore’s publicly funded universities are described as autonomous, a just-released survey of some 200 academics at Singaporean universities found that political pressure exists but is indirect, often invisible and confined to a few ‘sensitive’ areas. More concerning, pressure is institutionalised in a way that undermines university autonomy.
Government attempts to control academic autonomy and freedom are growing in India amid instances of interference in the appointment of vice-chancellors, increased pressure to sack critics of government policy and greater centralisation of regulation. And all the while freedom of the press is under threat.
The overwhelming endorsement by Danish MPs of a motion calling on universities to avoid “excessive activism in certain research environments” and ensure free and critical scientific debate has been criticised in an open letter signed by thousands of academics, who see it as a threat to academic freedom.
A prominent historian, whose work has influenced youth and student protesters in Thailand demanding reform of the country’s monarchy, is being investigated by the university where he did his PhD after criticism from pro-royalists, in part attempting to limit its impact on young protesters.
China’s recent imposition of sanctions on European academics dramatically illustrates how procedures for protecting academic freedom are no longer fit for purpose. Universities must include their academics who are involved in internationalisation in discussions about how best to manage future academic freedom risks.
The resignation of two distinguished academics after facing pressure from Ashoka University not to criticise the government has stunned the university’s students and faculty as well as the academic community across India and overseas, intensifying concerns for academic expression and freedom in India.
The shifting of learning and collaborations online during the COVID-19 pandemic has led to new threats to academic freedom, including increased opportunities for surveillance of research, teaching and discourse, as well as restrictions, self-censorship and isolation, new data from the Academic Freedom Index 2020 shows.
In a rare televised cabinet meeting in February 2021, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, revealed the government’s readiness to grant full autonomy to universities in an effort to reduce their financial dependence on the government. Whereas the announcement should be hailed as one of the most significant gestures towards universities in a long time, institutions may still face an uphill battle to become autonomous.
Companies in China’s Xinjiang province have reportedly filed a domestic civil lawsuit against a high-profile United States-based academic whose research into the treatment of China’s Turkic minority Uighur population, including alleged forced labour, has angered the Chinese authorities. The Chinese government supports the lawsuit.
Rights groups and civil society organisations have called for the release of a former Delhi University professor currently serving a prison term in India, who recently tested COVID-19 positive, which could be life-threatening given his existing conditions and lack of adequate medical care.
Iranian-born British social anthropologist Kameel Ahmady trudged through mountain snows to slip across Iran’s border rather than face more than nine years in jail after trial without legal representation, after researching and lobbying for raising the age limitation on child marriage.
Hong Kong has provided a rare refuge of academic freedom in Greater China for decades of researchers. As that freedom slips away, it is time for universities elsewhere to return the favour by stepping up, speaking out and offering refuge to Hong Kong’s scholars.
The European Union and an international network of thousands of academics have condemned the arrest of two students in Turkey over a poster promoting LGBT viewpoints, the detention of hundreds of students who protested against the arrests and anti-LGBT hate speech by politicians and officials.
Candidates for student union leadership positions in Hong Kong are facing increased pressure over campus activities in the wake of the new Beijing-imposed National Security Law. Warnings from university management and fears of being individually targeted have meant few students are willing to stand for union positions.
India’s government has made it mandatory for academics and organisers to obtain prior clearance from the Ministry of External Affairs to hold international webinars or online seminars on topics touching on India’s security and internal issues and on subjects the government believes are sensitive.
The abrogation of the accord on the right of the military to enter the University of the Philippines marks an attack on academic freedom, given the university’s history as a place of sanctuary for indigenous communities protesting against authoritarian regimes, say members of its community.
Disaster medicine scholar Ahmadreza Djalali, who was reported to be facing execution in Iran on Wednesday, has been granted a reprieve, his lawyer says. But it is not clear whether the reprieve is temporary or signals that Iran is prepared to review his case.
Scholars at Risk or SAR has called on the Iranian authorities to suspend the capital sentence issued against Dr Ahmadreza Djalali, an Iranian-Swedish scholar of disaster medicine who teaches at universities in Italy, Belgium and Sweden, and secure his immediate release.
Peking University, one of China’s top universities, has announced tighter rules for attending online conferences organised overseas, including in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau. Human rights groups say these amount to restrictions on academic freedom and do not comply with international human rights standards.
The National Security Law for Hong Kong which prohibits ‘secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces’ to endanger national security, which could lead to life in prison for ‘primary instigators’, has severe implications for academic freedom both in Hong Kong and abroad.
The proposed national security law in Hong Kong has made academics nervous about the potential future implications for academic freedom. Is it in China’s interests not to clamp down too hard at first, but will the overall effect be to encourage self-censorship?
The heads of the governing councils of Hong Kong’s eight publicly funded universities have backed a plan announced by Beijing last month to impose a national security law on the city, an act that many academics see as ‘doing Beijing’s bidding’ and politicising universities.
The dismissal of a university law lecturer and human rights defender who set an examination question considered by the Cameroon government to be ‘seditious’ has been widely criticised by a number of the country’s academics.
National political tensions in India have spilled over into universities, with numerous incidents on campuses, some of them violent causing injuries and damage to university property. In some cases, campuses have had to be closed, according to an academic freedom report.
There has been a spike in reported attacks on students and scholars in China over the past year, aimed at “eliminating dissent and restricting the flow of ideas”, amid a resurgence of student activism, according to the Scholars at Risk Free to Think 2019 report.
During the past year Scholars at Risk has reported 97 violent incidents involving attacks on higher education communities across 40 countries. At least 32 students, scholars, staff, campus security personnel and others died as a result of these attacks, with many more injured.
Jailed Uighur academic Ilham Tohti, a critic of China’s treatment of Uighurs, who was jailed for life in 2014, has been awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the European Parliament’s top human rights award.
Last year I was imprisoned for nearly seven months in the United Arab Emirates. Reflecting on my experience, I believe that research practice and its risks require better acknowledgement and respect, and freedom to research should be protected, if academics are to continue to contribute to the generation of knowledge.
A Zimbawean student masters student – studying peace, human rights and governance at Africa University – was absent when her colleagues graduated last week because she was locked up in a maximum security prison on a charge of planning to unseat President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government.
There are reportedly 30 names on a ‘watchlist’ of international academics and researchers on ‘society, culture and politics’ in Thailand, who are being detained and monitored by Thai immigration police while visiting Thailand, reportedly on the orders of the central Special Branch Bureau.
Academics from around the world contacted by the Jawaharlal Nehru University Teachers’ Association in New Delhi have criticised attendance-monitoring rules for the university’s faculty, which would also affect foreign and visiting professors to the institution.
Student expression has more impact and legitimacy when organised through democratic, inclusive and accountable bodies that foster debate and cooperation across political differences before conflicts arise. University leaders can help to strengthen student expression by creating opportunities for constructive dialogue.
A new report examining the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s relationship with Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s killing, while acknowledging that taking money from agencies affiliated with the Saudi government raises ethical issues, concludes that MIT should not sever those ties.
Two academics are going on trial in Hong Kong for peaceful protest, but no one is speaking up on their campuses. Their universities have not defended their right to free speech. Yet the whole academic endeavour will be harmed if they do not support them.
Amid threats to academic freedom and unjust actions against academics – such as the jailing for life of United Kingdom PhD researcher Matthew Hedges in the United Arab Emirates recently – international branch campuses should engage with their host country and promote acceptance of free inquiry rather than retreat.
An Egyptian state university has said that thesis proposals for masters and doctoral degrees must conform to governmental development plans, raising concerns about academic and research freedoms in the country.
The Central European University (CEU) has announced that it has been forced to launch all new United States-accredited degree programmes in Vienna in September 2019 instead of Budapest, to guarantee that it can recruit students in time for the new academic year.
Matthew Hedges, the United Kingdom PhD researcher sentenced to life for ‘spying’ in the United Arab Emirates, has been pardoned and has returned to the UK. However, at the announcement of his release, officials showed a video they claimed was evidence that he had confessed, which he denies.
Academics and human rights advocates in New Zealand have urged Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to protect the academic freedom of a professor who has faced months of alleged harassment – including a burgled office – ostensibly for her work critical of China’s influence abroad.
The sentencing of United Kingdom doctoral student Matthew Hedges to life imprisonment in Abu Dhabi is causing further shock and alarm for academics undertaking research in the Middle East, who are already shaken by the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Turkey in October.
A change of president at China’s top university in Beijing is being seen by academics as signalling a tightening of control over dissenting thought among scholars and stronger oversight by the Communist Party of top universities in their role as influencers of young people.
The election of Brazil’s new far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, has already seen the beginning of a witch-hunt against academics. Further attacks on higher education, including budget cuts, curriculum changes and the abolition of affirmative action policies, are likely to be next.
A change of president at China’s top university in Beijing is being seen by academics as signalling a tightening of control over dissenting thought among scholars and stronger oversight by the Communist Party of top universities in their role as influencers of young people.
African countries were challenged to take more deliberate steps to build science and innovation capacity and were told that guaranteeing academic freedom is vital for fostering innovation, at the Sixth Africa Higher Education Week and Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture Biennial Conference last week.
Attacks on scholars, students, staff and their institutions are continuing to occur with alarming frequency around the world, killing and harming individuals and undermining higher education systems, according to the 2018 Scholars at Risk Academic Freedom Monitoring Project’s latest annual report.
The imprisonment of Matthew Hedges in the United Arab Emirates is part of a pattern of repression against visiting academics. It is also the result of the blurring of lines between different professions as academics seek greater impact and requires a wider defence of the role of critical enquiry.
Attempts by the government of India to impose new rules on centrally funded universities that would restrict academic freedoms and the right to protest or strike are being reversed due to widespread opposition. Academics saw the measures as a push by government to control universities.
Central European University (CEU) says it can wait no longer for the Orbán government to sign a deal enabling it to operate with academic freedom and has been forced to open a Vienna campus to cater for future students of its United States-accredited masters and doctoral programmes.
As Hungary faces a key vote in the European Parliament, the European University Association has condemned the Hungarian government’s mounting attempts to interfere with academic freedom and the autonomy of the higher education sector, putting it at risk of becoming an “instrument of government”.
Not only have academics lost their jobs and faced being denied the chance of getting any other job, all for signing a peace petition, but hundreds have now been charged with terrorist offences and face either prison or delayed judgment and with it five years of censorship.
Scholars at Risk, the New-York based international network of institutions for protecting scholars and promoting academic freedom, and the University of Oslo, Norway, have jointly developed a free online course on how to use academic freedom to ask critical questions and contribute to a democratic society.
Washington State University has agreed to pay a leading researcher US$300,000 to resolve a complaint about infringement of academic freedom by university administrators who were accused of threatening him with disciplinary action and imposing a gagging order.

Washington State University has agreed to pay a leading researcher US$300,000 to resolve a complaint about infringement of academic freedom by university administrators who were accused of threatening him with disciplinary action and imposing a gagging order.
Iranian scholar Ahmadreza Djalali, a specialist in disaster medicine who returned home to share his knowledge, has been imprisoned for two years without a fair trial and sentenced to death. He has lost in total 20kg and his family fear for his life.
‘Wrongfully convicted’ scholar Dr Ahmadreza Djalali, an emergency medicine specialist, has been told his death sentence will go ahead after the authorities kept his court review date and location secret from his lawyers to deny him the chance to appeal, human rights organisations say.
A judge in Tehran has ordered the death penalty for a Stockholm-based Iranian academic convicted on charges of spying for Israel after being forced to sign a confession. He had been invited to Iran to teach classes in medical responses to disaster emergencies.