Scientific Foresight (STOA) By / January 5, 2023

How to provide enforceable protection for academic freedom at EU level?

The European Parliament’s President Roberta Metsola launched the new EP Forum for Academic Freedom initiative.

Written by Eszter FAY.

That was the question discussed by Members of Parliament together with representatives of the academic and research community and other stakeholders at the STOA high-level conference on 28 November 2022.

The EP Forum for Academic Freedom, a new project, established by the European Parliament’s Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA) at the initiative of its Chair (Christian Ehler (EPP; Germany) was launched at the conference. Academic freedom is a basic value and a fundamental right. It is essential to the quality of education and research. It is a driver of innovation, enhances the capacity of scholars and students to acquire and generate knowledge, and thereby protects societies’ capacity for self-reflection. While states and universities throughout the world have long committed to respecting and protecting academic freedom, it remains poorly understood – and is under attack in many places worldwide, including in several Member States.

Strong political backing

The European Parliament’s President Roberta Metsola launched the new EP Forum for Academic Freedom initiative. It is intended to provide a discussion forum for all stakeholders on how to protect academic freedom and will produce regular independent monitor reports on the state of play of academic freedom in the European Union. President Metsola recalled that the Parliament has been leading the fight for stronger enforcement of the Rule of Law in the Union, and this platform will be an important tool for the Parliament to drive stronger enforcement of academic freedom, in close cooperation with the academic sector.

In his welcome address, STOA Chair Christian Ehler highlighted the importance and the timeliness of taking action on academic freedom as backsliding has been seen in recent decades, as part of the general erosion of democratic norms and the rule of law in several Member States. While acknowledged the existing initiatives, he called for more protection and guarantees. To develop effective policies addressing the issue, the EP Forum for Academic Freedom will also contribute to developing a common understanding of the problem. Mr Ehler stated that as the only directly elected EU institution, the Parliament was the proper place for reaching this understanding free from pressure from national governments, while the academic sector takes the driving seat.

As a non-partisan think tank of the Parliament, the STOA Panel is the perfect platform for this discussion. It is in STOA’s nature to lead early discussions on complex policy issues by providing a platform for science-based and evidence-informed policy debates.

EU Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth Mariya Gabriel stressed the importance of this strategic debate in a video message. Academic freedom and freedom of research are two pillars of the European system of knowledge creation and dissemination. They carry important European cultural values, such as dialogue, solidarity and mutual respect.

The Dutch Minister for Education, Culture and Science Robbert Dijkgraaf thanked the EP for putting academic freedom at the top of the agenda, as it is at the heart of European democracy. He called to preserve academic freedom at all costs, as a public good and to stand up for scientists and scholars. The minister highlighted that a broad-ranging dialogue between science and society is crucial, as well-formed, science-literate citizens are better able to make responsible choices when confronted with grave problems such as climate change, nuclear power, vaccination or genetically modified food.

Academic freedom is an important value in our society

Professor Jacob Dahl Rendtorff (Roskilde University, Denmark) stated that the idea of critical thinking and critical discussion is key to the university. He introduced the discussion by presenting the internal and external challenges and the different pressures on academic freedom.

Secretary-General Professor Kurt Deketelaere of the League of European Research Universities (LERU) presented their recently updated study on ‘Academic Freedom is a Fundamental Right’, analysing the legal basis of academic freedom protection in the EU. He stated that academic freedom is not only a goal in itself, but is instrumental in serving society through the search for knowledge, disseminating knowledge and fostering independent thinking. Countries must respect and protect academic freedom as well as ensure and promote it. However, the legal basis in EU Member States varies.

Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) CEO and Chair of the G6 network of research associations, Antoine Petit reiterated the G6’s commitment to freedom of scientific research. He also called for respect for the freedom of expression, as a pillar of democracy.

State of play of academic freedom in the EU

Secretary General Amanda Crowfoot, of the European University Association (EUA), explained that the EUA started to develop a common understanding of institutional autonomy in 2007, as institutional autonomy is a pre-requisite for universities to carry out their mission. As a result, the EUA’s Institutional Autonomy Scorecard was launched in 2011. It is based on four dimensions: organisational, financial, staffing and academic autonomy, and aims to collect, compel and assess data on university autonomy. The next edition is due in early 2023.

Professor Peter Maassen (Faculty of Educational Sciences, University Oslo), author of a STOA study on the de facto state of play of academic freedom in the EU (expected to be published in early 2023), pointed to an overall erosion of academic freedom in EU Member States, with a growing trend of publicly expressed concern about, and threats to, academic freedom. The study identifies a diversity of definitions, interpretations, nature of concerns and threats to academic freedom in the EU Member States. Professor Maassen presented the freedoms of teach and learn, of research and of expression and dissemination, as essential criteria. According to Professor Maassen, academic responsibility for safeguarding academic freedom, self-governance (staff and student involvement), institutional autonomy, academic labour conditions and financial conditions are the required conditions under which academic freedom can be exercised. He highlighted the need to find ways to deal with diversity in definitions and to create a common understanding of academic freedom. He concluded by saying that measures are needed at national and EU level to prevent a further erosion of academic freedom.

Professor Zoltàn Ronay (Eötvös Lórand University of Budapest), co-author of the STOA study on monitoring mechanisms and methodologies (expected to be published in early 2023), presented an ‘onion model’ to distinguish between substantive elements (such as freedom of teaching and learning, dissemination and the right to self-governance) and supportive elements (institutional autonomy and employment security) for academic freedom.

Professor Gergely Kovats (Corvinus University of Budapest), co-author of the same study, presented the challenges of the operationalisation of academic freedom (such as complexity, variety of definition etc.) and the weaknesses of exiting monitoring methods (such as the lack of regular reporting, context specificity, depth etc.). In conclusion, he called for a regular ‘meta evaluation’ monitoring exercise that could integrate the results of existing evaluation procedures and put results in context by following consistent guidelines and comparability.

More political action is needed

STOA Chair Christian Ehler closed the event by highlighting that the challenges of academic freedom are changing over time. He called for additional political action and concluded that there is a need for an authoritative instrument to monitor academic freedom, where methodology should be developed by academia, but safeguarded by politics.

If you missed the conference, the full recording is available at EP Forum for Academic Freedom.

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