Academic freedom is a cornerstone of universities as well as any democratic society. Research and higher education have played a major role in driving society forward in the past, and with the challenges we face in the future, such as in the form of climate change, we are ever more relying on their continued driving role.
However, high-quality research and education can only take place in a free space without overwhelming political pressures, as it is ensured by the right to academic freedom. Only universities, researchers and students, who are without fear of reprisal, are free and able to engage in research, teaching, learning and communication in and with society, which is one key aspect ensured by the right to academic freedom1.
In some places in Europe, it can, at first glance, be easy to take academic freedom for granted. However, if you scratch a bit at the surface, you will quickly realise that academic freedom is under pressure. Some of these attacks on academic freedom are attempted and fought against completely in the open, like the Hungarian government’s infringements on the independence and autonomy of the universities in the spring of 2021. Other attempts to undermine academic freedom are well concealed but not any less harmful, so it should be remembered that attacks on academic freedom come in many shapes and forms.
When the European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers (Eurodoc) today, on the 15th of March 2023, launches its statement, “Academic freedom - at the institutional level”, it is the outcome of several years of work. As you will see in the statement, many people from all over Europe have contributed to this joint output. This showcases exactly the strength of the statement: Eurodoc as an umbrella organisation to 26 national organisations, represents both doctoral candidates and other early-career researchers across Europe. Joining so many efforts from such a wide and diverse group is a key message in itself: Academic freedom concerns doctoral candidates and early-career researchers alike, and we want to be part of the discussion on how to strengthen this, our basic right.
In the statement, Eurodoc provides a series of recommendations that we insist to be implemented by governmental and academic institutions to secure academic freedom. While some of these principles concern the academic freedom of doctoral candidates and other early career researchers primarily, most concern the whole of academia. There can be no academic freedom for any group in academia if there is not both institutional academic freedom and academic freedom for individual researchers in general.
- The state of academic freedom is a measure of the state of democracy. Protect it to the fullest extent possible; protect it in the constitution.
- To ensure academic freedom, there must be a balanced relation between funders and researchers at all levels. There can be no academic freedom if it does not extend to all researchers and students, including doctoral candidates and early-career researchers.
- A requirement for academic freedom is reasonable working and employment conditions for all researchers, including doctoral candidates and other early-career researchers.
- Academic freedom requires a fair and transparent research assessment system.
Research funders should not tell universities how to conduct their research and which results to publish, universities should not tell their professors how to conduct their research and which results to publish, and professors should recognise that academic freedom extends to junior researchers as well. There is an important role top-down to request and monitor adherence to principles of ethics and research integrity, as well as the implementation of all necessary measures to document research activities, ensure full reproducibility, and provide accountability. However, pressuring researchers to conduct their research in a particular way or only publishing certain results is unacceptable. At no level is the acceptance of threats of financial reprisal compatible with academic freedom.
Restricting the academic freedom of one group under the guise of enabling academic freedom for another cannot hold true. Moreover, if arguments for unreasonable working conditions, such as scholarships instead of employment of ECRs, are provided along the lines as to ensure the academic freedom of professors, we understand this as a misuse of the term, but an incident that could not be further from the responsibilities and rights that constitute academic freedom.
Academic freedom is the freedom to conduct all academic activities within the norms and principles of the field. This includes advocating for sufficient funding for research and higher education. No, it is not easy, but it is worth doing. If you truly care about the role of research and education in society, then do not sell the academic freedom of others cheaply under the wrong impression that it will allow you to keep your own.
Instead, put focus on it. Discuss it, and discuss the importance of academic freedom for research and researchers for society. If you are unsure about where to start, read the statement by Eurodoc, and start advocating for the suggestions to advance - and let us know what we have missed.
One thing lacking in the present statement is the role and responsibilities of individual researchers. From Eurodoc's perspective, there are two levels of academic freedom, institutional and individual level. These two do not compete. However, they are closely coupled, and there can be no institutional academic freedom if there is no academic freedom for the individual and vice versa.
While the statement that was released today focuses solely on the institutional level, this discussion continues in Eurodoc, and we aim to release another statement regarding the individual level of academic freedom later this year.
The strengthening of academic freedom is a topic that should concern us all, so we hope you will also discuss it. And if you do so - remember to include doctoral candidates and early career researchers in the discussion. After all, they are the future of academia and academic freedom.
1Rome Ministerial Communique
Pil Maria Saugmann: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-3548-0134
Sebastian Dahle https://orcid.org/0000-0001-7568-0483
Sara Pilia : https://orcid.org/0000-0001-8221-3082