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Between fear and hope – academic freedom and university autonomy in Europe today

While the fundamental principles of academic freedom and institutional autonomy have not changed in the last 30 years, their context has. EUA’s Monika Steinel analyses the panorama and reflects on what these principles mean in practical terms today.

Academic freedom and institutional autonomy are in a bind in several European countries. After a long period of relative stability, they seem to be on a downward trajectory, in line with growing pressures on democratic systems and values, erosions of the rule of law and the curtailing of basic human liberties.

Illustrative cases abound, unfortunately. In Turkey, the academic community has been subjected to intense pressure from the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ever since the attempted coup in 2016. Most recently, the politically motivated appointment of a new rector at Bogaziçi University in Istanbul led to a wave of criticism and protest at home and indignation abroad.

The story of the Central European University (CEU), hounded from its base in Budapest by the government of Viktor Orbán, is also familiar. The ruling in October 2020 by the Court of Justice of the European Union that the Hungarian government violated EU law when it passed its so-called “LEX CEU” in 2017 has yet to lead to any tangible consequences.

Last summer, we saw ruthless reprisals against students and staff of Belarusian universities involved in pro-democracy protests. Given these circumstances, EUA and the European Students’ Union (ESU) in a joint statement even called into question the continuation of the higher education reform work with the Belarusian Ministry in the context of the Bologna Process.

Most recently, all eyes have been on France, where the Minister for Higher Education, Research and Innovation, called for a probe into the alleged influence of so-called "Islamo-leftism” in French universities and research. National and European university communities were quick and decided in pointing out that governments should refrain from meddling in universities’ research agendas.

All this is one, dispiriting, side of the coin. But there is a second, more encouraging one, that may prove the adage that absence – of academic freedom, university autonomy and values in general – makes the heart grow fonder. In fact, various positive initiatives have sprung up, particularly in the last two years.

The European Higher Education Area, with its extensive experience of bridging divides between systems and fostering dialogue, has been an important player: following a re-affirmation of university values in the 2018 Paris Communiqué, a task force was set up to develop a monitoring mechanism on fundamental values. The available evidence base – already solid on institutional autonomy since the development of EUA’s seminal Autonomy Scorecard – has been much boosted by the development of a global Academic Freedom Index. Now in its second iteration, this index uses expert assessments to capture the state of academic freedom in 175 countries from 1900-2020.

Within the EU, the German Presidency of the EU Council sent a strong signal in October 2020, when ministers adopted the Bonn Declaration on Freedom of Scientific Research. At the regulatory level, plans to make receipt of EU funds contingent on the respect for the rule of law is placing pressure on some member states, as evidenced by the fact that Poland and Hungary launched a legal challenge against the so-called “rule of law mechanism” in early March. References to academic freedom will be added to both the Horizon Europe and Erasmus+ legal texts, a move that will have, at the very least, powerful symbolic meaning.

Add to this the July 2020 report on the role and protection of academic freedom by the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, as well as the November 2020 resolution on threats to academic freedom and autonomy by the Council of Europe, and the canon of statements, resolutions, reports and communiqués continues to grow.

So, where do we go from here? The multiplication of statements and initiatives is indicative of a resurgent recognition of the importance of fundamental values. While this is welcome, it is now essential that commitments are followed by action. Public authorities, universities and the many other societal actors engaged in relevant discussions need to come together around concrete plans to better protect academic freedom and institutional autonomy. Each of these partners plays a different, yet necessary, role, which requires discussion and definition. At the same time, we should be wary of unintended consequences: for instance, universities should not be deprived of European funding because of actions taken by their illiberal governments.

Finally, while the fundamental principles of academic freedom and institutional autonomy have not changed in the last 30 years, their context has, and markedly so. It may therefore be time to reflect on what they mean in practical terms – today.

By doing this, we may have to raise some difficult issues. For example, how far can we go in addressing societal challenges by prioritising research on, say, climate change or Covid-19 before the freedom of researchers to decide on their field of study is curtailed? Does a strong focus on contributing to the economy and preparing students for a changing labour market unduly limit universities (and academics) in their decisions? Bearing in mind that openness and collaboration are key to scientific enquiry, can universities (and academics) engage with global partners who do not share their fundamental values?

In a sense, such nitty-gritty questions demystify academic freedom and institutional autonomy. They make plain how deeply our core values and their application affect every day institutional realities and operations. Over the coming months, EUA will venture to engage its membership in such reflections. And while we do not expect to deliver definitive answers, we hope to contribute to a pertinent and necessary dialogue on the nature of universities and their role in society today.

“Expert Voices” is an online platform featuring original commentary and analysis on the higher education and research sector in Europe. It offers EUA experts, members and partners the opportunity to share their expertise and perspectives in an interactive and flexible exchange on key topics in the field.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.

Monika Steinel

Monika Steinel is Senior Policy Analyst at the European University Association where she focuses on the fundamental values that underpin the mission and work of Europe’s universities.

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