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Academic Freedom in the Spotlight

Strengthening academic freedom in European policies and national legislation is becoming ever more relevant as a reaction to numerous reports on individual pressures, discriminatory administrative practices and political decisions targeting higher education community in many countries worldwide. The recent Rome Ministerial Communique highlighted the importance of fundamental values in education and devoted a full Annex to outline a shared understanding of academic freedom for the EHEA, which is to serve as a first basis for the future development of indicators. We are hereby presenting some cases relating to this issue in Europe and Brazil. For more details on individual cases, please follow the links provided in the text. 

As reported by the University World News, heads of higher education institutions in Norway, Sweden and Denmark have recently started to advocate for (re)introducing academic freedom into their respective national legislations. In Norway, the discussions started already in 2014 in talks about reforming the constitution. Recently, Norwegian Minister of Research and Higher Education Henrik Asheim stressed that an increasingly politicised climate might lead to academic freedom being weakened and felt that it must not be taken as a given, while the academic community is advocating for grounding it in the constitution. 

In Sweden, a consultation for a proposal to re-introduce academic freedom in university law was started in May 2020 with a majority of respondents endorsing the government’s proposal. If passed in the Parliament, a specific paragraph on academic freedom will be re-introduced after it was removed in 2007. 

In Denmark, concerns were raised by Camilla Gregersen, president of the Danish Association of Masters and PhDs (DM), highlighting two concrete cases in which the funders disagreed with the research reports they had paid for and asked the researchers not to publish them. In a survey conducted among its 50 000 members, 24% of scientists making analyses and reports for ministries and institutions reported facing such pressure with only 35% of respondents reported feeling that legislation secured their academic freedom sufficiently. Researchers were supported by university rectors, and the Danish Minister of Higher Education and Science Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen wrote a letter to the other ministries asking the public institutions to respect the independence of researchers when the authorities are ordering research tasks and funding them. 

Meanwhile in Brazil: similar challenges, yet on a different scale. Higher education institutions are facing a growing pressure since Jair Bolsonaro took office in January 2019. A combination of budget constraints, president’s and, subsequently, administration’s bias against humanities and social sciences and a controversial “Future-se” programme aimed at increasing financial autonomy” of federal public higher education institutions (who rejected the programme) continue to be a threat to Brazilian university autonomy. Nevertheless, the sector is showing high levels of resilience and mutual solidarity in this period. University World News has more details. 

During the COVID crisis, academic freedom and institutional autonomy suffer from rapid depletion worldwide. For a detailed account of various cases and types of attacks at academic freedom worldwide, please consult Scholars at Risk’s recently published Free to think 2020 annual report.