Academic freedom is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for open research and teaching, not only in the humanities and social sciences but also in the natural and life sciences.
It plays a crucial role in the conduct of science, as it allows researchers and scientists the ability to pursue knowledge, explore new ideas, and share their findings and results freely, without fear of censorship and political influence.
The Academic Freedom Index Update 2022 indicates that academic freedom has been thrown back to a level last registered around 1980 for the average global citizen.”
However, academic freedom has been under pressure in an increasing number of countries for several years across the world. The Academic Freedom Index Update 2022 indicates that academic freedom has been thrown back to a level last registered around 1980 for the average global citizen. Simultaneously, the situation looks much more positive when using a conventional measure of country averages for academic freedom; academic freedom started to decline in 2008 but the average level of academic freedom remains relatively high. However, significantly fewer people today can benefit from free science than ten years ago. Overall, academic freedom remains relatively well-protected in Western Europe, while some countries in Eastern Europe have become more hostile towards academic freedom in the last few years.
At the same time, it must be understood that the restrictions on academic freedom are often closely related to democratic regression. Where democracy is in danger, academic freedom often also declines too.”
At the same time, it must be understood that the restrictions on academic freedom are often closely related to democratic regression. Where democracy is in danger, academic freedom often also declines too. Additionally, in those countries in Europe with recent drops in their academic freedom, populist leaders are often the amplifiers of academic freedom decline. This comment looks at academic freedom in Europe by analyzing the state of academic freedom and focusses on countries with recent drops in academic freedom: Hungary, Poland, the United Kingdom, Russia, and Belarus.
The map of Europe shows the state of academic freedom in 2021, based on the Academic Freedom Index (AFI). The AFI is the result of a collaborative research project from Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany, and researchers at the Varieties of Democracy Institute in Gothenburg, Sweden. A new interactive website will be available in early March at academic-freedom-index.org. The AFI builds on assessments by more than 2,000 experts around the globe and is freely available at https://v-dem.net. The AFI assesses de facto levels of academic freedom across the world based on five indicators: freedom to research and teach; freedom of academic exchange and dissemination; institutional autonomy; campus integrity; and freedom of academic and cultural expression. It currently covers 177 countries and territories, and provides the most comprehensive dataset on the subject of academic freedom.
Since its disastrous invasion of Ukraine, Russian academics fled, university members were arrested and the freedom to research and teach is restricted more extensively by Putin’s regime.”
The AFI and the Update 2022 reveal that Poland, Hungary, the United Kingdom, Russia, and Belarus are countries that are among 19 decliners that show substantial and statistically significant drops in the Academic Freedom Index between 2011 and 2021. Russia lost 0.245 points between 2011 and 2021, while we could obviously expect that the academic environment became even worse since Russia’s war with Ukraine. Since its disastrous invasion of Ukraine, Russian academics fled, university members were arrested and the freedom to research and teach is restricted more extensively by Putin’s regime. The effects of Russia’s war with Ukraine are even worse for academics in Ukraine. Russian ally Belarus scored even worse. Belarus is in the bottom 10%, with 0.06 points, which is just as bad as China, Myanmar, and Saudi Arabia, among others. It also lost 0.11 points in the last ten years. While both, Russia and Belarus are autocratic regimes, the decline in academic freedom also appears in democratic countries (Poland and the UK) and former democratic countries (Hungary).
Hungary lost 0.58 points since 2009, resulting in a score of 0.38. Hungary is also considered the first electoral autocracy in the European Union, according to the V-Dem Democracy Report. Victor Orban came to power as Prime Minister in 2009 through regular, free, and fair elections with his FIDESZ party. According to data from the V-Party Project, the FIDESZ party was already populist in 2009, and it has become increasingly anti-pluralist in the years since. At the same time that Orban took office, a process began in which academic freedom was restricted, slowly at first, then more and more rapidly. This process culminated in the closure of the CEU in Budapest. Thus, in Hungary, democratic backsliding and a populist party, which provides the Prime Minister, has cumulated in a toxic mix for academic freedom.
Poland, which like Hungary gained significantly in academic freedom in the course of the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, has also lost considerable academic freedom in recent years, although the decline is less drastic. Poland lost 0.24 points in the last ten years. The gradual decline in academic freedom started in 2015, exactly at the time the Law and Justice party won the presidential election with Andrzej Duda in May 2015. In October 2015, the Law and Justice Party also won the parliamentary elections to both the Sejm and the Senate. Since the Law and Justice party, led by Jarosław Kaczyński, formed the government, liberal democracy is also in retreat. According to V-Party data, the Law and Justice Party is strictly populist and furthermore anti-pluralist. Thus, democratic backsliding and populism have coalesced also into a malign alliance for academic freedom in Poland.
What may be the main drivers of the academic freedom decline in the United Kingdom – according to a recent survey among UK academic staff working in higher education – are declining institutional autonomy of universities, less self-governance, and funding, particularly in relation to employment protection in terms of tenure.”
However, the decline in academic freedom has not only appeared in Eastern Europe, it has also appeared in some countries in Western Europe, including the United Kingdom. In the UK, academic freedom has declined to a level of 0.81. Thus, it remains relatively high compared to Poland and Hungary. What we know is that populist parties were not the main driver of the academic freedom decline in the UK. According to V-Party data, neither Labour nor the Conservative party is overly populist. What may be the main drivers of the academic freedom decline in the United Kingdom – according to a recent survey among UK academic staff working in higher education – are declining institutional autonomy of universities, less self-governance, and funding, particularly in relation to employment protection in terms of tenure.
In light of the ongoing global deterioration in democracy, it is crucial that governments, academic institutions, and civil society organizations take steps to protect and promote academic freedom.”
In summary, these exemplary cases show that where democracy is in danger, academic freedom also seems to be threatened. This is particularly the case in Eastern European countries where anti-pluralist populists are in government and where young democracy is still unconsolidated. In the United Kingdom academic freedom seems to be threatened from the inside, not by democratic backsliding and populist leaders. However, while academic freedom remains strong in most European countries, it is declining in some countries, posing a threat to the free exchange of ideas and the pursuit of knowledge. In light of the ongoing global deterioration in democracy, it is crucial that governments, academic institutions, and civil society organizations take steps to protect and promote academic freedom. Downward trends can be broken. For this, a scientific community is needed that does not accept the restrictions of its academic freedom by democratically elected governments but rather problematizes and advocates against them.
The Political Institute of FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg’s research and teaching focus on challenges to democracies and states that deviate from the democratic norm, on the accelerating changes in the international order, and on managing technological innovation. It cooperates with the V-Dem Institute on the Afi project.
The Academic Freedom Index (AFi) project is a collaborative effort launched in 2019. AFi scores rely on five separate indicators, which in turn are based on assessments by nearly 2,000 country experts. They are collected and integrated by V-Dem using a Bayesian measurement model.
This Commenntary was originally written by by Lars Pelke, FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg, for NLS magazine No 01 2023, out February/March 2023