Written by Andrés García with Laia Delgado Callico.
The scope for European Union (EU) action to respond to current challenges to academic freedom is not always clear. Members of the European Parliament addressed this question at a recent STOA conference, which looked for ways of building on several European initiatives focusing on academic freedom (such as Article 13 of the EU Charter for Fundamental Rights, the Bonn Declaration on Freedom of Scientific Research, and the League of European Research Universities (LERU) advice paper ‘Academic freedom as a fundamental right‘.
The event, held online on 9 November 2021, was organised by STOA with the support of the European University Association (EUA). It served to clarify the definition of academic freedom and frame the challenges in the EU context while aiming at identifying options for addressing them. In addition to the conference, an official STOA mission to Budapest took place on 3‑5 November 2021, led by STOA Second Vice-Chair Ivars Ijabs (Renew, LT) and included visits to the Central European University (CEU) and other institutions, to acquire first-hand experience of their current operating conditions and activities in the context of discussions on academic freedom.
The conference was opened by STOA Chair Eva Kaili (S&D, Greece), who highlighted that academic freedom is closely linked to institutional autonomy, which refers to the capacity of higher-education and/or research organisations to independently govern research and education without state or other interference. Professor Klavdija Kutnar, President of the Council for Higher Education of the Republic of Slovenia and Rector of the University of Primorska, welcomed the participants on behalf of the Slovenian EU Presidency. She emphasised that society continues to place hope in science, sometimes treating it as a beacon that guides society towards a distant, but more sustainable and just future. Academic freedom creates the right environment for science to turn all these hopes into reality.
This was followed by introductory remarks from the conference chair, First STOA Vice-Chair Christian Ehler (EPP, Germany). He underlined that academic freedom is part of the enlightenment tradition that shaped Europe and is shared in the EU research area (ERA). While academic freedom has been a democratic norm in the EU for decades, this norm has recently started to erode. This event should be the starting point to a serious debate within the EU on academic freedom and how to protect it; as well as a call for action. Christian Ehler insisted that monitoring and non-committal statements are not enough to stop the decline of academic freedom in Europe – we need effective action that results in real world changes. The European Parliament will drive this conversation and push for the action needed to protect academic freedom in Europe. Institutional autonomy is fundamental, and universities are susceptible to interference through the control of their funding schemes. However, universities, in their turn, have to support academic freedom themselves. For Christian Ehler, it is therefore everyone’s responsibility to protect and ensure academic freedom in the EU.
Panel 1: Scene setting
The first panel served to set the scene by identifying and distinguishing different elements of the debate in Europe today, notably the progress made, challenges faced, and the particular role of institutional autonomy. The panel started with a talk by Kurt Deketelaere, Professor of Law at KU Leuven, who presented the LERU advice paper. He referred to academic freedom as a core, almost sacrosanct, aspect of modern universities, which is legally recognised in a broad variety of hard and soft law instruments, but is nonetheless under pressure worldwide. He pointed out that academic freedom has three different dimensions: as an individual right, as an institutional right, and as a state obligation.
This was followed by Liviu Matei, Professor of Higher Education Policy and Provost of CEU, speaking on the state of and prospects for academic freedom in Europe. He insisted on the multidimensional aspect, which requires support from multiple actors. While the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) and EU higher education frameworks have institutional support at European level to uphold academic freedom, the existing instruments may not be enough. Any conceptual reference for academic freedom must be centred on the core function of the university, which is the production, transmission, dissemination, and curation of knowledge as a public good.
Panel 2: What can be done?
Building upon these insights, the second panel served to explore the measures that can be taken in response to challenges to academic freedom in Europe, with particular reference to matters of institutional autonomy. It took the format of a roundtable discussion with Chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on Culture and Education (CULT) Sabine Verheyen (EPP, Germany); Ivars Ijabs; Viviane Hoffmann, Deputy Director-General, Directorate-General for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture (DG EAC) at the European Commission; Anna Panagopoulou, Director, Directorate-General for Research and Innovation at the European Commission (DG RTD); and Amanda Crowfoot, Secretary-General of EUA. During his intervention, Ivars Ijabs reported on the STOA mission to Budapest and argued that, in his view, a possibility for European research funds to bypass Member States’ central authorities would be advisable, in order to ensure independent funding. Sabine Verheyen highlighted that, at EU level, fundamental academic values are at the core of the Bologna process and referred to the global Academic Freedom Index.
The conference was moderated by Robert‑Jan Smits, President of the Executive Board of Eindhoven University of Technology, and former Director‑General of DG RTD (2010‑2018).
During his closing remarks, Christian Ehler identified academic freedom as a fundamental principle and stressed the need for a mechanism to ensure Member States comply with the provisions of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union in relation to academic freedom. He concluded with a call for action from the European Commission and for a discussion with the Council, which should result in specific measures, at a time when academic freedom is under threat.
The full recording of the workshop is available here.
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