Academic freedom and institutional autonomy: developments in Europe and beyond

17 November 2020

Recent months have seen important events regarding academic freedom, both in Europe and globally. There have been violations of democratic and human rights in Belarus, including threats against students and staff of universities – which were widely condemned. Last month, the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) ruled that the Hungarian government violated EU law when it amended its education law in 2017. The EJC ruling drew welcome attention to growing violations of academic freedom and institutional autonomy, which are essential for successful universities and vibrant democratic societies in Europe and beyond.

These themes have also drawn attention in different policy arenas. At the global level, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression published a report focusing on the role and protection of academic freedom. Highlighting the special place of academics and academic institutions in democratic societies, the report also affirms the responsibility of states and governments to protect academic freedom and challenges higher education institutions and civil society to press policy makers to address the issue. In September, the report was submitted for consideration to the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly.

At the EU level, the Bonn Declaration on Freedom of Scientific Research, drafted under the German presidency of the EU Council, was adopted at the Ministerial Conference of the European Research Area on 20 October. The Declaration highlights the essential nature of scientific freedom for the progress of societies and the role of governments in safeguarding it. The text also notes the importance of deploying “more effective” instruments to ensure scientific freedom is upheld and proposes to “closely follow the establishment of a monitoring system on academic freedom in the European Higher Education Area”. EUA has been directly involved in this ongoing initiative of the Bologna Follow-Up Group through its participation in the relevant working group.

EUA will continue to support its members and work with its partners to increase awareness of these developments and initiatives, while promoting academic freedom and institutional autonomy at all levels, involving universities along the way.

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