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Safeguarding Academic Freedom in Europe

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Academic freedom as a human right

A study synthesised the constitutional and statutory protection for academic freedom with measures of faculty norms and departmental cultures. This provided a comparative assessment of the protection for and health of academic freedom in the EU.

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Academic freedom should be a key component of a European knowledge economy in which universities play a vital role. International organisations such as UNESCO regard the proper functioning of universities as a measure of human rights on a broader scale. Since academic freedom is a rather under-researched topic in Europe, the EU-funded SAFE (Safeguarding Academic Freedom in Europe) project assessed, first of all, the situation of the legal (de iure) protection of academic freedom in EU countries. It also looked at whether the countries involved have formally accepted relevant obligations under international human rights treaties. Furthermore, the work then addressed the extent to which the policies, conventions and cultures of these countries protect academic freedom in practice (de facto). Compliance was measured against UNESCO’s Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel of 1997. To assess the de iure protection of academic freedom, 37 indicators were identified and developed based on human rights requirements (as outlined in the UNESCO Recommendation of 1997). These include freedom of teaching, freedom in carrying out research, the autonomy of institutions of higher education, self-governance in higher education by academic staff and students and employment security. Results indicate that the notion of institutional autonomy is being misconstrued, and that self-governance and employment security are being eroded. In contrast, assessing the de facto protection of academic freedom involves the use of a survey which looks at the state of protection of academic freedom in practice in European countries. A pilot of the survey has been conducted in an English university. The survey has been made available online for European academic staff to participate therein. While some countries received high responses, the participation in other countries needs to be increased. This means that only some data analysis has been possible so far. It will have to be repeated once a sufficient response rate has been achieved. Data collected is analysed according to accepted statistical methods. Up to now, the analysis has revealed that the de facto protection of academic freedom is at a rather low level too. Rankings for the de iure and the de facto protection of academic freedom in European states will eventually be combined to produce an overall ranking. The findings of the SAFE project will soon be published in acclaimed academic journals. Results will facilitate discussions at the international, national and institutional levels towards corrective measures in restoring academic freedom. This in turn can lead to a better protection for academic freedom in Europe.


Academic freedom, European knowledge economy, UNESCO, human rights, freedom of speech, higher education, self-governance, employment security

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