Only 20 per cent of world ‘has strong academic freedom’

Global index finds freedom of academic expression is declining, while experts warn overall autonomy may worsen post-pandemic

March 11, 2021
Free speech, censor, censorship, academic freedom of expression
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Only about 20 per cent of the world’s population lives in countries where academic freedom is well protected, according to new research which finds that global scholars’ licence to express themselves on politically salient topics is “under great strain”.

The Academic Freedom Index 2020 assessed levels of scholarly autonomy in 175 territories and found that the largest annual declines in academic freedom were found in Belarus, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka and Zambia.

In the study, which was first launched last year but includes assessments going back to 1900 based on insights from around 2,000 country experts, 71 countries (41 per cent) received the highest “A” rating for academic freedom, gaining a score of at least 0.8 out of 1. Meanwhile, 40 countries (23 per cent) received a score of just 0.39 or below and were given a D or E rating as a result.

When the data are analysed in terms of population size, the index finds that overall “only about 20 per cent of the world’s population lives in countries where academic freedom is well protected”, said Katrin Kinzelbach, a political science professor at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg and one of the researchers behind the project.

The index was jointly developed by researchers at University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) institute at the University of Gothenburg and the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi), who worked in close cooperation with the Scholars at Risk Network.

The figures are not directly comparable with last year’s data as 31 more nations are included in the 2020 index. But the researchers said that the average level of academic freedom globally was stable compared to last year. In 2019, 39 per cent of countries received an A rating and 24 per cent received a D or E rating.

However, the scholars said that some aspects of academic freedom had been deteriorating and suggested that this could worsen post-pandemic.

Janika Spannagel, a research fellow at the GPPi in Berlin, said that the global average score for one of the study’s five indicators – scholars’ freedom to express themselves on politically salient topics – was “under great strain” and had been “dropping steadily since 2013”. She said this was partly attributed to increasing political polarisation in societies around the world.

Meanwhile, in certain countries, including Belarus and Poland, there had been declines in campus integrity, which assesses the extent to which campuses are free from surveillance or security infringements. Ilyas Saliba, a research fellow at the GPPi, said that this could be related to the shift to online teaching during the pandemic, adding that “digital forms of teaching and collaboration often facilitated surveillance and very likely incentivised self-censorship in repressive settings”.

He said that in most of the countries where academic freedom dropped significantly between 2019 and 2020, the deterioration could be “traced to either novel regulations that limit the freedom to research, teach and publish, or to repressive political acts against pro-democracy movements with a strong base among students and faculty”.

Professor Kinzelbach said she was surprised but encouraged that there had so far not been a substantial drop in academic freedom levels globally as a result of the Covid crisis, but added that the “litmus test” would occur once campuses reopened. She said “authoritarian countries may use the excuse of the pandemic to establish structures” that limit academic freedom.

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