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Weiss and Rendtorff: ‘Academic freedom is under threat, and common European action is needed’

European Parliament forum for academic freedom

Throughout the 20th century, freedom of thought and freedom of speech at Europe’s universities stood as a bulwark in the struggle between totalitarianism and liberal democracy. With the emergence of populism and a society on digital steroids, it’s now more important than ever to strengthen freedom at European universities.

Opinion article by Member of the European Parliament Pernille Weiss (Conservative People’s Party – EPP) and Professor Jacob Dahl Rendtorff (Roskilde University). The article has been published originally in the Danish Magazine “Ræson” on 9 February 2023.

Academic freedom is under pressure in Europe. This is the freedom to research and to disseminate, to learn and to teach. The freedom we seldom talk about, and that many people believe is just as inviolable as the freedom of speech and the freedom of assembly.

For many understandable reasons, academic freedom is not the same throughout the EU, so the kinds of pressure being brought to bear are also different. In some countries, such as Hungary, researchers are persecuted by the government because of their research. Scientists are fleeing Ukraine and seeking protection in the EU. And in the Middle East there are researchers who are struggling to avoid being imprisoned or killed.

Here in Denmark – at the other end of the scale, admittedly – there have recently been a number of discussions concerning activist researchers, and allegations about pseudo-science, a lack of impartiality and independence, and so on.

Most recently there has been a heated debate about whether a researcher in the School of Education at Aarhus University was fired for political reasons. Many researchers are scared to speak out publicly for fear of harming their careers.

Increased external political and economic pressure on science is raising fundamental questions about researchers’ rights to choose their own topics and methods – with the responsibility for scientific integrity that goes hand in hand with that, of course. There is a risk that funding from foundations and fixed requirements for research will restrict researchers’ freedom to act.

Universities are required to be politically accountable for their activities. Among a growing number of scandals about politically and financially controlled research, there have been scientific studies, tests and research projects that are actually being run by the state, or by businesses or industry – this curtails the scientific independence that researchers have.

Based on an assessment of job security, dependence on external funds and democratic participation, some commentators maintain that Denmark is at the bottom of the pack when it comes to how much room for manoeuvre researchers have. Others have collected specific examples of challenges to academic freedom in Denmark. Some particularly high-profile scandals have involved companies or universities seeking to influence research findings.

In other cases, researchers have been sacked because they have criticised university leaders.

One of the issues that the examples show is an increasing interest in exploiting researchers’ knowledge commercially and politically within a complex knowledge society, where research is playing a greater role in innovation and growth.

Internally, academic freedom is increasingly facing challenges from the ‘cancel culture’ movements at universities, where researchers – or students – are experiencing pressure from certain politically correct ideologies. There is less room for freedom of thought and freedom of speech in knowledge production.

This curtailment of the freedom to research and to teach can come from both the left wing and the right wing. From the left, post-colonial gender and race activists are looking to upend the traditional curriculum and establish control over their lecturers. And from the right there is also criticism of a culture of unease at universities, where lecturers who disrupt civil norms are reprimanded or recommended for dismissal.

In addition, Europe’s universities are coming under increasing pressure from the decision-makers in society, who want to exercise more detailed management of research and teaching with a view to stepping up universities’ contribution to the productivity of society.

Academic freedom, like so many other freedoms, is not something that takes care of itself. Not even in Europe

Academic freedom, like so many other freedoms, is not something that takes care of itself. Not even in Europe. There is plenty of evidence for this: according to the 2021 Academic Freedom Index (AFI), 10 of the EU’s 27 Member States are right at the top of the table, but the situation is still deteriorating in Hungary and is worrying in Poland and Greece.

The Scholars at Risk network confirms the AFI’s global picture: the state of academic freedom is not good in many parts of the world. Restrictions are being placed on research centres, research findings are coming under attack, debate is being curtailed and academics are being threatened and sued – in some places, their lives are on the line.

In countries like Syria, Iran and Afghanistan, academics are imprisoned or executed, and female students are denied education. If we look at countries like Russia and China, academic freedom is severely curtailed: researchers have practically no freedom of speech at all.

But the challenges are increasing in European countries, too, where governments are curbing universities’ freedoms and private companies are establishing strict limits on the use of research findings.

We therefore need to do more to protect academic freedom in Europe. Europe has a political responsibility to set a good example for the whole world, not least because academic freedom is absolutely fundamental to the European idea, to our understanding of ourselves as Europeans and to our profile in a world where freedom and democracy do not form the same kind of historical spirit or cultural practice.

Humanism and the Enlightenment

Europe is built on the humanism of ancient Greek culture, Renaissance thought on freedom with its focus on human dignity, and the critical reason of the Enlightenment that make democracy, free-thinking and freedom of speech core values for the Europe of today and of tomorrow. These ingredients have made Europe one of the world’s richest and most innovative continents – for our own benefit, and that of our allies in freedom. Much is at stake, then, if academic freedom is allowed to erode Europe’s foundations unchecked.

Throughout the 20th century, freedom of thought and freedom of speech at European universities stood as a fundamental bulwark in the struggle between totalitarianism and autocracies, on the one hand, and liberal democracy on the other. But with the emergence of populism, in particular, and with society on digital steroids it is more important than ever to strengthen freedom at Europe’s universities.

This is why STOA, the European Parliament’s technology assessment think-tank, has embarked on important work to try and help bring about a well-deserved renaissance in academic freedom by developing a way of protecting it without taking away the fundamental premise of freedom itself. The idea is for academic freedom to be monitored so that it can be protected on the basis of data which in itself supports the definitions of academic freedom, but which is also used to cast a critical eye over existing evaluation methods and procedures and – where appropriate – suggest political initiatives.

Developing a monitoring system for academic freedom will make it possible for more tangible efforts to be made to protect the scope for action that researchers have, because it will be patently clear when powerful states, authorities or private companies are looking to hinder the work of researchers and teachers. Institutionalising the protection of academic freedom can also help create a safe space for researchers to report violations of their rights. An academic freedom watchdog could also take specific action to strengthen and improve academic freedom in Europe in order to highlight problems.

The intention is not for the EU to override the academic freedom that is practised in the Member States with due regard for subsidiarity and the legitimacy of the national state. On the contrary: the idea of a common EU monitoring tool is that it would be able to strengthen our common language and understanding, and help shape the task of protecting what we as Europeans have in common. Knowledge knows no borders, and the same is true for academic practice. There are therefore strong arguments for the European Parliament – which is directly elected by the people of the EU – to boost efforts to support academic freedom.

Universities can change the world with their research, and therefore trust in universities’ academic practices is an inviolable freedom that comes with great responsibility

Universities can change the world with their research, and therefore trust in universities’ academic practices is a freedom that is inviolable and comes with great responsibility: a responsibility that universities cannot and should not bear alone.

If common EU monitoring can help boost efforts in individual countries, and especially across borders, institutions and scientific disciplines, it should be conducted in an open and transparent way that promotes dialogue, so that society at large can play an active role.

This is precisely what the initiative of the European Parliament’s Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA) aims to do. When it comes to the development of the monitoring tool, surely discussions will arise if and how academic freedom in the EU is – or isn’t – sufficiently or properly protected, both constitutionally and under the Treaties. And of course we welcome those discussions. The point is that the term ‘academic’ does not explicitly appear in the EU Treaty. It should appear in Article 6, but only teaching is mentioned.

The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (Article 13) states only that academic freedom must be respected. Because there are so few definitions, the legal framework is fragile. So before there can be talk of amending the EU Treaty, and before it is formally possible to do so, it is therefore important for a common monitoring tool to contribute to the democratic discussion that may eventually result in that – or something like it – happening.

In Europe, we value academic freedom as the cornerstone of something far greater. Freedom of thought and freedom of speech lie at the heart of the European way of life. The EU institutions should therefore continuously strive to articulate and provide tangible protection for academic freedom, in the knowledge that the protection of academic freedom cannot be left to the nation states alone.

European values of freedom are also a common concern. Research is the key driving force when it comes to developing Europe economically and as a sustainable, democratic role model for the rest of the world. That is why academic freedom needs to be strengthened in Europe.

Since mid-2022 Jacob Rendtorff has been working on ‘The Ethics and Politics of Free Thinking: The End of the Public Intellectual?’. A Research Project in Philosophy and Political Theory’, a three-year research project that has received DKK 2.7 million from the Independent Research Fund Denmark.

Pernille Weiss MEP sits on a number of committees and panels at the European Parliament, among them the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) and the European Parliament’s Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA).

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