The freedom of researchers in Europe to choose a research problem, and to publish and express their opinions of their results, is declining.
“We can see a marked deterioration during the past few years in Hungary, Poland, Macedonia, Serbia and the Czech Republic. It is not only a question of academic freedom – other freedoms, such as the freedom of expression, of organisation and of the media are also being restricted,” says Staffan I Lindberg, who is professor of political science at the University of Gothenburg.
He is one of four research leaders for Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem), which is a major international research project that measures democracy according to a number of different indicators. The researchers have gone back to as far as 1900 and conducted estimates for every year since, up until the present day.
One of the indicators measures academic freedom. The measurements are presented on a five-point scale, where zero means that there is no academic freedom at all and four means that there is total freedom.
“The rating for Poland in recent years has decreased from almost four to 3.5, in Macedonia it has gone from almost four down to two, and both Serbia and Hungary have seen a decrease from four to three. The rating for the Czech Republic is currently almost three.”
Earlier this year, Hungary became the focus of attention when its government introduced new legislation which threatened the Central European University (CEU). The university was founded in Budapest following the fall of the communist regime in 1991 by the Hungarian-born billionaire Georg Soros.
The CEU is, however, registered in the USA and is the only one of the 27 foreign universities in Hungary that does not have a campus in Hungary. This is a requirement of the new law. The legislation was met with a storm of criticism as it was perceived as being directly aimed at the CEU. Following opposition from its own political group in the EU parliament, Prime Minister Orban backed down and the law is being rewritten.
“I don’t think we’ve heard the last of this. There is an agenda at work here. Orban wants a form of ‘democracy’ with a series of basic rights and freedoms removed. The CEU is a bastion of liberalism which unwaveringly supports democracy. Of all Hungary’s universities, this is the most independent because it is financed by Soros.”
In Turkey, the academic freedom rating is now close to zero, having been at 3 as recently as in 2008. The security forces’ clampdown on opponents has had a huge impact on universities, which have been closed down, and researchers, who have been dismissed from their posts or even imprisoned.
The USA has also experienced a slight decline in academic freedom during the past two years – this decline has, however, not been statistically attested.
“By following news reports, it is notable that Trump attacks fact-based knowledge. At state level, there are examples that the financing of academic institutions is being reduced. The state government in Wisconsin has abolished the permanent employment of researchers, as well as granting university boards the right to dismiss professors for practically no reason.”
Helene Hellmark Knutsson, Sweden’s Minister for Higher Education and Research, finds cause for concern in this development.
“It was only a few years ago that we saw a wave of democracy sweeping across the world. Now, however, we can see this trend going in the opposite direction. It is worrying. Academic freedom is one of the central pillars of democracy. When it concerns EU member states, we make this point clearly via the European Commission.”
Shortcomings in Sweden
Sweden ranks almost at the top of V-Dem’s ratings. But here, too, there are shortcomings. Academic Rights Watch is a foundation that monitors academic freedom in Sweden. More than 20 cases of infringement were documented last year, including restrictions to the freedom of expression.
“We have seen hundreds of cases in Sweden since the beginning of 2014, with roughly the same number of cases reported each year. But what we see is only the tip of the iceberg”, says Erik J Olsson, who is professor in theoretic philosophy at Lund University and one of the foundation’s founders.
Academic Rights Watch also monitors other factors, including the freedom of universities in their relationship to the state. According to Erik J Olsson, this freedom is less in Sweden than in other countries, referencing a British report published in June.
In this report, Terence Karran and his colleagues compared legislation in 28 EU member states concerning factors such as the freedom to research and teach, autonomy from the state, collegial governance and security of employment. Of the 28 countries, Sweden ranks in 23rd place – ahead of countries including Hungary, Denmark and the UK. The rankings are led by Croatia, Spain and Bulgaria, followed by Germany and Austria.
Government appoints vice-chancellors
The Swedish result is affected by the fact that the freedom of education is not enshrined in the constitution. Also of major significance is that vice-chancellors and the majority of members of the boards of HEIs are appointed by the government.
“The reason for this is because, strictly speaking, state-run universities are government authorities, and the heads of authorities are appointed by the government. It has, however, never been the case that a vice-chancellor different to the one proposed by the university’s board has been appointed”, says Helene Hellmark Knutsson.
Staffan I Lindeberg, however, believes that the system should be organised more sustainably.
“As a matter of principle, it is wrong that state powers appoint the chairs and the majority of members of the boards. If the political climate was to change, powers of government that wish to place restrictions on academic freedom would have the structures in place to do so.”
Freedom not increased by autonomy
The autonomy reform introduced in June 2011 has given universities greater independence. For researchers, however, it has resulted in restricted freedom with diminished collegial governance, according to Mats Ericsson, chair of the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers (SULF). He says that he cannot see anything that has increased the academic freedom of individual researchers during the past ten years.
“The funding system has compromised freedom. The proportion of free funds – the basic grant – has decreased. Politicians have made major investments in prioritised areas, which means that other areas have been downgraded. It is often the responsibility of the vice-chancellors to determine who gets to apply for the grants. Overall, there is currently a greater degree of control being exercised when it comes to deciding who gets to do what.”