Politics and protests puts Europe’s academic freedom policies under the spotlight

04 Jan 2024 | News

Wars on Europe’s doorstep, tech espionage and illiberal governments are spurring the EU and national governments to rethink who should take the lead on academic freedom

Christian Ehler MEP. Photo: Eric Vidal / European Union

The pressure for EU legislation to protect academic freedom ramped up towards the end of 2023 when the European Parliament’s STOA panel for the future of science and technology set out its plan of action.  

Amongst other measures, STOA is calling for a formal definition of academic freedom and a monitoring system to ensure these principles are enforced.

The initiative is led by STOA chair Christian Ehler MEP, who pointed to declining academic freedom in Poland and Hungary as a spur. “If you look at what we currently call ‘incidents’ […] the legal situation is not so clear and also politically, let's be honest, there’s reluctance,” he said.

There is also action at a national level, with a scorecard published by the European University Association showing governments including Spain, Latvia, the UK and Sweden are enacting laws bolstering academic freedom rights.

This is leading academics to wonder who has the final say on academic freedom policies. Is it lawmakers or universities?

It is the case that some university leaders are cautious about formalising academic freedom. “We should be careful not to ‘over-legalise’ academic freedom protection,” said Monica Steinel, deputy secretary general of the EUA. “Even with the best intentions, legal approaches alone are not sufficient and they can backfire.”

Academic freedom is best protected by guidelines or regulations set by universities or their associations, Steinel said.

In Sweden, academic freedom is protected by the higher education act but not the constitution. “The legal definition is kind of vague, which has its pros and cons,” said Karin Åmossa of the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers. “If it were to be more specific, there is a risk that important aspects are left out, but on the other hand it might be clearer and easier to understand for the public.”  

One of the cons is that the protection conferred by the higher education act relates only to universities. Åmossa and others are pushing for the Swedish constitution to include a general principle on academic freedom and institutional autonomy that would apply to the entire state.

Similarly, Ehler is pushing for the EU’s founding treaties to be amended to include academic freedom. The next stage on his mission is for the STOA proposal to be formally adopted by the European Parliament.

“This is only one initiative in Europe aimed at what I call reconceptualising and codifying anew academic freedom,” said Liviu Matei, professor of higher education at King’s College London and founder of the Global Observatory on Academic Freedom.

He is sceptical about the STOA proposals because they are not coordinated with other EU and European initiatives. As one example, in 2020 the Bologna Process established a shared, defined understanding of academic freedom for the European Higher Education Area, and work is in hand to embody this in a number of indicators.

“The European Commission is working on a separate monitoring exercise,” Matei said. The STOA panel initiative may end up promoting legislation and monitoring that would only protect freedom of scientific research, rather than academic freedom writ large.

Others are warmer about the STOA proposals. “Some coordination might be reasonable,” said Gergely Kováts of Corvinus University of Budapest, author of an overview of methods and procedures for monitoring academic freedom. “For example, the Bologna follow-up group also works on indicators and a regular reporting mechanism. Results, data-collection mechanisms and reporting processes can be shared and used in my opinion.”

Caught in the middle

Without strong policies, universities often walk a tightrope trying to satisfy both politicians and the academic freedom of their staff. Feelings stirred by the Israel-Gaza war provides several examples of this balancing act:

  • In Ireland and the Nordic countries, students and staff have demanded their universities cut relations with Israeli institutions because of the conflict in Gaza. Most universities have not commented beyond saying researchers are free to express their opinions, though several Norwegian universities have said an academic boycott of Israel is ‘out of the question.’
  • In October, UK science minister Michelle Donelan called for an equality and diversity panel at the national funding agency UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) to be fired after some panel members posted what she said were “extremist views” about the Israel-Gaza war on social media.
  • In France, the minister of higher education Sylvie Retailleau invited university presidents to report and sanction statements supporting Hamas days after the attacks.
  • A student event on the war at Aarhus University led a far-right member of the Danish parliament to question whether university premises should be available free of charge for such events.
  • Responding to “strong emotions” around the conflict, Chalmers University in Sweden banned all political demonstrations on its campus, only to reverse the decision less than a week later after protests.

Community advice

Universities have been here before. After Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 it brought back a “distinct, Cold War-like atmosphere in higher education policies and practices” said Matei. Notoriously, one Italian university decided to stop teaching Dostoevsky, quickly reversing its decision days later.

Universities had advice from national and European associations. The day after the invasion, the Alliance of Science Organisations in Germany recommended its members suspend partnerships with Russia, with France’s CNRS following the next week.

The European University Association said it would cut any contact or collaboration with any government agencies supporting the invasion, calling on its members to do likewise. Although some researchers and institutes knew that it would affect their work, Steinel says most agreed that cutting ties was necessary.

“In general, we saw considerable support for this decision within our membership, and particularly the general principle that you cannot work with bodies close to the Russian government,” said Steinel.

Another front

Another threat to academic freedom revolves around concerns about technology espionage by China. Politicians are on edge: in October the German research minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger said that “the Communist Party can be hiding behind every Chinese researcher” when discussing international partnerships.

University associations such as the Leibniz Association in Germany have advised members on how to assess risks in international partnerships. Many worked with the EU when it was developing its own guidance.

A small survey of 15 members of the association of science and technology universities CESAER showed the majority have scaled up their knowledge security in the last two years.

But politically-driven guidelines can be both vague and too demanding.  A University of the Netherlands (UNL) group worked with the Dutch government on national security guidelines for international research. These were generally well-received but the Dutch government is now going further with stricter guidelines in an upcoming Knowledge Security Act. Universities will be asked to screen large groups of researchers entering the Netherlands, something they say is virtually impossible to implement.  

“The act may result in lengthy procedures which deters international academics from working in the Netherlands,” said Ruben Puylaert, UNL spokesman. The act could also lead to discrimination in recruitment. “Universities cannot and will not reject promising applicants or valued colleagues solely on the basis of their origin,” he said.

Freedom of speech on campus would likewise suffer from over-legislation says Åmossa. It would also be difficult to enforce. Swedish universities already struggle to balance faculty declarations with the country’s freedom of expression act and the work environment act, she said.

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