Threats to academic freedom and autonomy of higher education institutions in Europe
- Parliamentary Assembly
adopted by the Standing Committee, acting on behalf of
the Assembly, on 20 November 2020 (see Doc. 15167, report of the Committee on Culture, Science, Education
and Media, rapporteur: Mr Koloman Brenner).See also Recommendation 2189 (2020).
1. Academic freedom and institutional
autonomy of higher education institutions are not only crucial for
the quality of education and research; they are essential components
of democratic societies. Yet these values are facing multiple threats
today, ranging from the criminalisation of researchers, scholars
and students to the commodification of higher education and commercialisation
of knowledge, which are increasingly damaging the quality of education
and research and distancing higher education from wider civic, democratic
and societal purposes.
2. The Parliamentary Assembly deplores the fact that some Council
of Europe member States figure at the very bottom of the recently
published Academic Freedom Index (AFI) list, which confirms the
urgency of setting up a proper international framework of assistance,
monitoring, assessment and sanctioning mechanisms to protect academic
freedom and integrity across the continent. The fundamental values
of higher education apply to all member States, without exception.
3. The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated the extent to which
academic freedom helps research and dissemination of reliable information
during a global sanitary crisis. This pandemic should in no way
serve as a pretext for any further infringements of academic freedom
and institutional autonomy of higher education institutions. The
post-Covid-19 world will require, more than ever, democratic civic
universities dedicated to producing knowledge and developing the
competences required to serve society responsibly and responsively.
4. The Assembly regrets that to this day, notwithstanding two
decades of serious discussions on academic freedom and integrity,
declarative statements have not yet translated into an internationally
agreed definition or conceptual reference of academic freedom. This
explains in part the low awareness among the academic community
of their rights and helps to turn a blind eye to institutions and
countries that fail to guarantee core values and protect students
and scholars. The Assembly therefore welcomes the adoption of a
common definition by the Conference of Ministers of the European
Higher Education Area (EHEA) held on 19 November 2020 and encourages
the design of appropriate benchmarks that would enable systemic
monitoring and assessment.
5. The Assembly recalls the Committee of Ministers Recommendation
CM/Rec(2012)7 on the responsibility of public authorities for academic
freedom and institutional autonomy, which clearly stipulates that
public authorities have the obligation to protect academic freedom
and institutional autonomy and that they must refrain from any action
that would endanger or impinge on these principles. The existence
of laws does not automatically guarantee their implementation. The
Assembly is concerned that, in the absence of regularly monitored
data and of a legally binding international agreement, the various
forms of abuse continue unhindered and unsanctioned. It considers
that there is a real need for a European convention on the protection of
academic freedom and institutional autonomy, together with its instruments
on information gathering, monitoring and assistance.
6. The Assembly expresses concern over the increasing external
funding and commodification of higher education, which undermine
the idea of higher education as a public good and a public responsibility.
The commercial and political interests of external funders may subvert
the focus of research towards increased profits and revenue flows
for the companies that sponsor such research, and set limits to
the freedom to publish the research results. Universities, as symbols
of the intellectual accomplishments of States, have a major role in
preserving cultural and linguistic heritage. National authorities
must therefore allocate adequate State funding to higher education
in order to reduce the risks arising from external financing.
7. Academic freedom and autonomy are not properly taken into
account in any university rankings today, making some higher educational
institutions in countries with the lowest scores on the AFI appear
to excel. Future rankings must duly take data on academic freedom
and available indexes into account. Excellence cannot be based on
stifled questions, political conformism and the closing of minds.
8. Finally, the Assembly commends the various initiatives that
different international bodies such as the Council of Europe, the
EHEA/Bologna Process or the United Nations Educational, Scientific
and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) are currently undertaking with
a view to developing new mechanisms to monitor the implementation
of academic values in higher education institutions. The Assembly
encourages them to bring all the different existing frameworks together
and to combine their respective strengths and resources in order to
avoid duplication of effort, maximise the added value of the research
and enhance the chances for broad policy development and implementation.
In this respect, the Assembly welcomes the 2019 Declaration of the Global
Forum on Academic Freedom, Institutional Autonomy and the Future
of Democracy and urges academic communities, higher education leaders,
public authorities, the ministries of the EHEA and other stakeholders
to adhere to its recommendations.
In light of the above, the Assembly calls upon the governments
of member and observer States:
ensure that the protection of academic freedom and institutional
autonomy is enshrined in national legislation and that the relevant
legal provisions are put into practice; to refrain from undertaking any
undue action that could endanger or impinge on academic freedom
and institutional autonomy and establish the frameworks that make
their practice possible;
9.2 to devise new post-Covid-19 national higher education
policies and regulatory frameworks that take due account of the
principles of academic freedom and institutional autonomy, in line
with the Committee of Ministers Recommendation CM/Rec(2012)7 on
the responsibility of public authorities for academic freedom and
9.3 to provide adequate public funding for higher education
and research, in line with established national priorities, thus
enabling institutions to maintain their independence as far as possible;
to enhance transparency within the regulatory mechanisms for higher
education funding and make clear provisions to prevent any possible
threat to academic freedom and autonomy through financing schemes,
whether the sources are public or private.
10. In particular, the Assembly appeals to the governments of
Azerbaijan, Hungary, the Russian Federation and Turkey, which rank
lowest in the AFI, to take immediate action to reverse recently
adopted legislation and/or practices that limit respect for principles
of academic freedom and institutional autonomy.
11. The Assembly calls upon the relevant stakeholders, including
international organisations, national authorities, academic professional
associations, universities and funders, to integrate the assessment
of academic freedom into their review processes, institutional partnerships
as well as their ranking and financial support mechanisms.
The Assembly welcomes the intention of the ministers responsible
for higher education of the EHEA to reaffirm their commitment to
promoting and protecting fundamental values across the entire EHEA
through intensified political dialogue and co-operation and, to
this end, urges them:
12.1 to place
at the top of their agenda for 2021-2024 the establishment of a
proper framework for the enhancement of the fundamental values of
the EHEA, including clear benchmarks against which the level of
(and changes to) academic freedom could be measured and a strategy
for advocacy and monitoring implementation of policies on academic
freedom and institutional autonomy;
12.2 to seriously address the threats to academic freedom and
institutional autonomy and consider taking measures in respect of
governments that show continued disrespect for these principles
or unwillingness to take reasonable steps to improve the situation.
13. Finally, national parliaments and international parliamentary
bodies also have a role to play in identifying relative increases
or decreases in respect for academic freedom among State partners
and providing a framework for regular evaluation, dialogue and reform.
The Assembly calls on national members of parliament and relevant
parliamentary committees of its member States to remain vigilant
as regards significant deficiencies or decreases with regard to
university values, and to undertake inquiries into the causes and develop
appropriate corrective policy remedies when necessary.