MEPs push to include academic freedom in EU treaties

11 Nov 2021 | News

The Commission is gearing up for the Conference on the Future of Europe, inviting citizens to debate challenges and priorities. But research, education and innovation are not on the agenda - and changing EU treaties to enshrine academic freedom is a taboo subject

Christian Ehler, Member of the European Parliament. Photo: European Union

MEPs and university representatives are facing a steep road ahead, as they demand academic freedom is made a key principle in EU treaties, meaning member states that are found to be limiting university autonomy and freedom to do research can be held accountable.

At a meeting of STOA, the European Parliament’s panel for the future of science and technology, MEPs lamented the EU’s inability to hold Hungary accountable for forcing the Central European University (CEU) to move its main campus from Budapest to Vienna, and argued the EU treaties should include specific references to academic freedom.

“European governments have been shifting norms to limit academic freedom for the first time in the history of the European Union,” said Christian Ehler MEP.

Academic freedom is enshrined in Article 13 of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, but its exact meaning is not specified, because it seemed self-evident and was not contested. The Bologna Process, a series of agreements that streamlines standards in higher education across Europe started in 1999, but academic freedom was never discussed until 2017, when member states began testing the limits of university autonomy.

Parliament negotiated with member states the inclusion of a non-binding provision (the so-called recitals) on academic freedom in the legislation of Horizon Europe, but the text was difficult to adopt without high-level interventions from the German ambassador.

“There is a fear, even within the member states that [academic freedom] doesn't seem to be part of the natural agreement, the natural basic values within the union, when there is a hesitation of a recital in a research programme,” said Ehler.

Parliament is planning to ask the Commission to include an evaluation of academic freedom in all member states in its midterm evaluation of Horizon Europe. The goal would be to exert financial pressure on countries which limit academic freedom, while shielding individual researchers and institutions from such measures.

“We have to talk about enforcement measures, and they're often related to money,” said Ehler. “Not that we would like to exclude academic institutions from funding, but we really should have a closer look at what we are going to do with the money in the regional funds but also the money which is spent structurally by the Horizon programme.”

Testing the limits of academic freedom

Most universities in the EU are publicly funded, which ensures that higher education is widely available for students in all walks of life. However, public universities are also more vulnerable to government pressures. “We need to have an unshakable protection for the institutional autonomy to safeguard academic freedom,” said Ehler.

Hungary is a prime example of how an EU member state can test the limits of academic freedom. In recent years, the Christian-nationalist government decreed gender studies degrees could not be funded from the national budget; made it impossible for CEU to issue US-accredited degrees in Budapest, thereby forcing the private university to move its main campus to Vienna; and then unilaterally moved the research institutes of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences under the jurisdiction of a new government-controlled agency.

Latvian MEP Ivars Ījabs was recently in Budapest on behalf of STOA to investigate the state of academic freedom in Hungary. He found issues in the country go beyond the cases of CEU and the Academy, with some researchers preferring to circumvent national funding sources “that are very often compromised for whatever domestic political reasons” and aim for EU grants which provide independent funding.

Principles of academic freedom have also been tested in Poland, Germany and in the UK.

Two Holocaust researchers were sued in Poland and ordered by a court to apologise for a paragraph in a 1,600 page book on the role of Catholic Poles in the deportation and extermination of Jews during World War II. Earlier this year, they won an appeal to the initial ruling, but researchers in the country feared the case might discourage researchers looking into politically sensitive issues.

In the UK, philosophy professor Kathleen Stock resigned from Sussex University, after a group of students disagreed with her opinions on gender identity and mounted a campaign to sack her.

“Institutional autonomy is supposed to be the shield protecting academics from undue outside influence,” said Ehler. “That does not only mean that academics need to be free to disseminate research result by expertise, it also means they should be free to express their opinion on societal issues and issues of university governance without fear of retribution,” he said.

The European University Association (EUA) published a university autonomy report in 2017, and is planning to publish a new version next year. EUA secretary general Amanda Crowfoot said a lot has changed over the past five years, with many new initiatives that measure and seek to enhance academic freedom in Europe. “I think with the topic so high on the agenda, this is a really good moment to take stock to evaluate the tools and the processes that we've already got, and to try to have a more structured approach to actually dealing with these issues,” she said.

Stronger legal base in treaties

MEPs and university representatives say the EU should revise the treaties to include clear provisions safeguarding academic freedom and a legal mechanism to enforce them. A treaty change would come in addition to other instruments and safeguards that the Commission could put in place. “We want to do a call of action towards the Commission to define this bundle of instruments which would be needed to secure the academic freedom,” said Ehler.

Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of the League of European Research Universities (LERU) said the EU needs to develop new rules for taking legal action against those who limit academic freedom. “We still see that taking speedy legal action to counteract specific forms of infringements, of attacks on academic freedom is still very difficult today,” said Deketelaere.

Back in 2020, three years after the Hungarian government began its offensive against CEU, the European Court of Justice ruled that the law preventing the university from offering US degrees in Budapest violates Hungary’s commitments under the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and infringes the provisions of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU relating to academic freedom.

But the EU has limited powers in dealing with infringements of academic freedom, as higher education is a competence of member states.

“Because of the very explicit research aspects that we can link to this notion of academic freedom, there must at least be a discussion on the possibility to include in the treaty an article, very similar perhaps to article 13 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which is clearly making the link with the research competences of the EU, and on the basis of which then, all kinds of attacks on academic freedom can be can be tackled,” Deketelaere said.

Conference on the Future of the EU

The Commission has kicked off preparations for a comprehensive reform process called the Conference on the Future of Europe. However, in the preliminary consultations, research, innovation and education were not mentioned. “This was already a disappointment for us,” said Deketelaere.   

Robert-Jan Smits, the president of the Eindhoven University of Technology said higher education, research and academic freedom should be part of the main pillars of the conference. Smits said it is “not acceptable” that when the European Commission wants to launch a procedure against a member state, it has to go to the WTO rules to find a legal basis to act. “There needs to be a proper legal basis,” he said.

Ījabs said WTO rules were somewhat useful in the case of CEU, but the EU needs its own stricter rules and a cost to be paid by member states that infringe on academic freedom in a more broader sense.   

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