How should universities respond when academic freedom is under threat?

UK universities may be among the most autonomous, but they need international cooperation to make their voices heard, says Paul Boyle

May 13, 2017

When European University leaders met last month for the annual European University Association conference in Bergen, Norway, top of the agenda was university independence and academic freedom.

The focus on autonomy was timely. The EUA conference coincided with the passing of controversial new laws in Hungary that could see the closure of the respected Central European University. Since the conference, the European Union has announced it is taking legal action against Hungary over the legislation, stating that the law is not compatible with academic freedoms.

At the same time, the widespread clampdown on academics in Turkey has continued following last year’s failed coup attempt, and the recent Turkish vote supporting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s sweeping constitutional changes suggests that the situation could become more perilous for university leaders and their staff.

At such times, the voice of universities needs to be strong, consistent and compelling, but the most effective way of making this voice heard is far from clear. Our recent experience in the UK demonstrates that at times we may be out of touch. Hence, while the Universities UK campaign to remain in Europe resonated across our campuses, this view turned out to be detached from the slight majority of people who voted for Brexit in the referendum.

The new wave of “populist politics” does not appear to accord with the “expert voices” associated with universities, which, as bastions of free thought and independence, are characterised by some as part of the self-interested “liberal elite” or even, in some extreme cases, enemies of the state.

This is a challenge for all of us who care about universities and academic freedom. As the EUA’s president, Rolf Tarrach, said during the Bergen conference, “university autonomy and academic freedom are crucial for the well-functioning of universities and higher education systems”. The question is, how do we respond when this may be under threat?

During the EUA gathering, we saw the launch of the newly updated University Autonomy Scorecard. It is in effect a league table of European countries based on the independence or autonomy enjoyed by their universities, and it considers how much of a role the state plays in running universities and how much freedom academics have to conduct their work.

Worryingly, one conclusion was that austerity in Europe had reduced the autonomy of many universities, compared with 2011 when the last assessment was undertaken, and that this will have negative implications for their international competitiveness.

The UK comes out as having one of the most autonomous and free university systems in Europe. It was the only country to rank in the top three for all four measures of autonomy, having more control over their organisational structures, their finances, recruitment policies and academic rights than universities elsewhere in Europe.

Some would argue that much of the success of the UK university system can be attributed to these high levels of autonomy. Perhaps it is no surprise then that change is afoot in some other countries.

In France, for example, the higher education system and its autonomy has been an issue in the presidential elections, as it is recognised by some candidates that state control may influence the performance of French universities. In the EUA analysis, France appears to have the lowest levels of autonomy.

The case for maintaining university autonomy is powerful and is not simply advocated by universities because they are bound to lobby for more independence. It is because universities work better, contribute more to society and are better able to contribute to economic growth when they are less fettered by state control, and more able to forge productive partnerships with the private, public and third sectors.

On all these measures, UK universities stand out. Hence there was considerable debate recently in the House of Lords when some peers feared that elements of the Higher Education and Research Bill (now Act) risked undermining university independence. And there have been lively debates about university independence in Scotland and Wales, where financial independence, at least, is weaker than in England.

The message is clear that, across Europe, we take university autonomy and academic freedom for granted at our peril. The principles of university independence and academic freedom in the UK are well established and rightly regarded as sacrosanct. And, more than that, we should be champions of autonomy and take a leading role in articulating this position across the continent.

Of course, this is more challenging as the UK prepares to leave the EU. While in the past, many of our European colleagues will have looked to the UK for leadership, we risk being more marginal in these debates.

How then do we make our voice heard, and how can we best make sure that it is listened to? One way is through partnership, and I would say through the EUA, in particular. At the annual conference, it was heartening to see EUA members’ universal condemnation of the recent moves in both Hungary and Turkey.

The UK’s involvement with the EUA will, I believe, help to maintain the strong university networks and links that exist already with our European partners. This will be critical as we work together to champion university autonomy, and other policy issues, across the region.

And, as Brexit negotiations get under way, the message from EUA colleagues in Bergen was clear: UK higher education is a vital and very successful European partner, and there are mutual benefits from continued collaboration.

Paul Boyle is president and vice-chancellor of the University of Leicester. He is a board member and vice-president of the European University Association.

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