European universities face fresh challenges to academic freedom, new report shows

07 Mar 2023 | News

The 2023 comparative scorecard by the European University Association shows the impact state policies have on the autonomy of higher education institutions

European universities still face “far too many” restrictions on their autonomy, hindering them from realising their full potential, according to the latest comparative scorecard on university autonomy, published by the European University Association

The report assesses 35 higher education systems from around Europe, including the new additions of Georgia, Romania and Scotland. 

Universities play a major role in helping to tackle society’s major issues, but increased awareness of that has brought about more governmental interest in universities, which in some cases is leading to “excessive and unnecessary influence”, be it through special arrangements, steering instruments or ad hoc interventions, Michael Murphy, president of EUA said. 

“I invite all European, national, and regional policy makers to draw on the comprehensive evidence in this report in making plans for future sector reform,” he said.

“I also call on them to engage in dialogue with the university sector to create regulations and policies that will enable Europe’s universities to meet the great challenges of our time.”

The 2023 scorecard looks at more than 30 different indicators of autonomy, which are grouped under four main categories: organisational autonomy, financial autonomy, staffing autonomy and academic autonomy. 

In analysing each of these four fields, the report found several instances in which academic freedom is curtailed around Europe. This was notably the case in Hungary, which was not included in the main scorecard but given its own complementary analysis due to its unique academic environment.

This is due to the creation of special public trust funds set up by the government to manage many of the country’s universities and whose boards of trustees have far-reaching powers, creating a system unlike anywhere else in Europe. 

Elsewhere in Europe, the report highlights situations in which government interference, even in mild or indirect forms, can hinder autonomy. An example of this is the use of performance contracts, which the report says can lead to an “excessive degree of micro-management” by public actors. 

“Just as universities are called upon to become strategic actors, it has proven challenging for public authorities to evolve from a top-down, controlling position towards a more supportive and enabling function,” the report states. 

Adequate resources

It also raises the eternal issue of a lack of funding for higher education institutes, saying that the amount of public funding made available to universities directly affects their capacity to make decisions

“The Autonomy Scorecard has repeatedly shown that universities cannot operate autonomously in a vacuum, whether in terms of accountability or finances. Adequate resources are needed to respond to the challenges that come with greater autonomy,” the report says

Finally, the report looked at the impact of COVID-19 in recent years. It found that while in some instances the pandemic increased academic autonomy in the sense that some institutions were allowed greater freedom in adapting their curriculum and evaluation procedures to an online environment, in other instances the pandemic had a negative effect by leading to greater state intervention. 

EUA’s latest scorecard, its fourth since 2009, comes at a time when academic autonomy and freedom sits high on the agenda of the European Parliament. In November last year it launched its Forum for Academic Freedom which aims to track academic freedom through yearly reports. 

The drive for greater concentration on academic freedom is being championed by German MEP Christian Ehler, who wants to see the Parliament’s Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA) to serve as a think tank that can act as an arbiter and watchdog for science and academics in Europe. 

Ehler has previously stated his discontent at the fact that EU member states did not want to include a reference to academic freedom in the legislation for Horizon Europe, the EU’s €95.5 billion research programme. 

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