At a conference in Brussels on 28 November 2022 the European Parliament’s Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA) launched the new EP Forum for Academic Freedom. Recognizing the universal importance of academic freedom, the aim of the Forum is to contribute to better understanding it as a concept as well as to help defend it at a time when it appears to be increasingly under attack. One of the deliverables of the Forum will be an annual Academic Freedom Monitor: an independent report about the state of play of academic freedom in the European Union.
The Forum’s inaugural conference, which could be attended in-person at the EP’s Library Reading Room and online, welcomed an impressive list of speakers representing (European) politics as well as academia, including Parliament president Roberta Metsola, EU commissioner Mariya Gabriel, Dutch Minister of Education, Culture and Science Robbert Dijkgraaf, and German Member of the European Parliament (MEP) and initiator of the newly established Forum Christian Ehler.
The theme of the conference was ‘How to provide enforceable protection for academic freedom at EU level?’. A compelling issue that speakers such as LERU Secretary General Kurt Deketelaere elaborated on was the robustness of existing EU legislation to respond to violations of academic freedom. While Article 13 (‘Freedom of the arts and sciences’) of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights provides a good basis for legal action, as the case of the ruling of the EU Court of Justice regarding the expulsion of the Central European University from Budapest to Vienna has proven, MEP Ehler turned out to be committed to pushing for the inclusion of academic freedom in the EU treaties themselves.
Whereas it is reassuring to learn that working on the best possible political and legal context for safeguarding academic freedom is a major priority for the EU institutions, seeing the issue being discussed predominantly by politicians and policymakers rather than by academics could lead one to question whether such initiatives themselves do not constitute a threat to academic freedom, as such political intervention could come across as challenging the institutional autonomy of universities. MEP Ehler seemed to be aware of this when he addressed the academic world stating: “We need your help. Without you we can't deliver.”
The least universities could do, is therefore to take this outstretched hand and invitation from MEP Ehler and join forces with the European Parliament in order to put all sorts of infringements of academic freedom high on the agenda. Yet, given the great importance of academic freedom as well as its breadth as a concept, we believe that there is a lot more that universities could do.
They could, first of all, explicitly (re)affirm their commitment to core university values such as academic freedom, above all by signing the (recently updated) Magna Charta Universitatum. And more importantly, having signed the Magna Charta Universitatum or not, they could take the lead in ensuring that the fundamental values that are laid down in the charter and in similar texts are sufficiently addressed and lived in their daily operations. Are universities putting enough effort, for instance, in confirming and protecting the individual rights of their academics to study whichever research topic they prefer, to express and publish the results of their research freely as well as to involve any partners in their academic work they need? Like any freedom, academic freedom is, of course, not absolute, but if universities expect others to respond to those who threaten it, they ought to safeguard it internally as maximally as possible as well.
Also in their interactions with politics and with the broader society universities could be more self-confident on this matter. As institutional autonomy is a crucial prerequisite for academic freedom, they should advocate for minimal external influence on their integrity and internal functioning, and at least they should stand firm whenever unwarranted pressure is being imposed on any of their operations. Last, as far as universities based in EU member states are concerned, there also seems to be some work to do vis-à-vis their national governments, a disappointing just-over-half of whom have expressed their willingness to work on ERA Action 6 (Deepening the ERA through protecting academic freedom), where we of course would have liked to see unanimous support by member states. Our association stands ready to support the implementation of this vital action.
The attention that is given to academic freedom at the European level also as part of the further implementation of the ERA is good news for universities. Now that the European Parliament is showing its teeth in defence of what is a crucial right both at individual and institutional level, universities should not hesitate to follow suit.
For more information, please contact Stefan Bengtsson (Envoy to the Swedish Presidency of Council of EU and President of Chalmers University of Technology) at firstname.lastname@example.org and Dieter De Bruyn (Senior Policy Advisor to the Rector of Ghent University and to the President of CESAER) at email@example.com.