Academic freedom: European Parliament sounds the alarm

What is academic freedom? According to a new European report, there are many different ideas about it, and that could potentially lead to problems. Education Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf is not so sure about that, but nevertheless wants to take the threats seriously.

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In essence, academic freedom means that scientists can carry out research in the way they want, can disclose their findings and can teach. They are also allowed to choose their own subjects and issues. But it is not quite as simple as that in practice. Where do you get your funding and who protects you from controversy and litigation?

Universities are responsible for providing the conditions in which academic freedom can be exercised. In the Netherlands, as in many other European countries, this is enshrined in law. But the law does not specify what academic freedom actually means. And even within an institution the interpretations of academic freedom can differ: does it apply only to researchers or also to students and lecturers? And when is an opinion sufficiently academic?

The lack of a good definition makes it hard to protect academic freedom from increasing threats, according to a new report by the European Parliamentary Research Service.

Increasing threat

The researchers looked at an earlier study on the autonomy of universities, media reports and scientific articles. They outline some alarming developments in the 27 Member States. Apparently, governments are increasingly getting involved in the research policy of the institutions. That is especially the case in Hungary: there it appears that the State decides which academic areas are ‘scientific’ and which are not. Such interference occurs in other Eastern European countries too, but to a lesser extent.

In other EU countries the freedom of movement of educational institutions is being put at risk by politics. In Germany, for example, the right-wing populist party Alternative Für Deutschland wanted to prohibit gender studies. That had no consequences, but did put researchers under pressure.

The report mentions the Netherlands as well. It claims that, as in other countries, there are increasing concerns over the increased power of the university board and the hierarchical structure of institutions. The report also refers to a growing number of complaints about the polarised public debate (and cancel culture), the funding of research by industry, and the employment conditions of researchers.

European consensus

The researchers advocate a European consensus on academic freedom, allowing better measurements to be made. The theory is that this would enable countries, scientists and policymakers to compare data and learn from one another. That would enhance resilience.

Continuing dialogue

Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf’s reaction to the report shows that he has his doubts about whether a European definition would be much of an improvement. He praises the attention paid to academic freedom, however. “I endorse the importance of continuing dialogue, shading and further analysis in specific cases.”

He is going to take up the subject of the strict hierarchy at universities with the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) and The Young Academy. Together with the effects of cancel culture, it must be included in an ongoing study of self-censorship, academic freedom and the restriction of the diversity of perspectives in research and higher education.

Finally, he refers to the ongoing investments in grants, permanent contracts and the publication of lists about external funding of academic chairs. These ought to give scientists more freedom.

Own research topics

The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences has already criticised the hierarchy at the universities in an earlier study of academic freedom in the Netherlands. They claim that because of a lack of democratic decision-making a large number of budgets have been reserved for strategic-thematic research. That makes it hard for researchers to put forward their own research topics.

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