Public Services & Governance

From words to actions: A call for international guidelines on implementing academic freedom.

Robert Quinn
Abstract

According to the latest data in the global Academic Freedom Index, while 94% of the global population live in countries that have legally pledged to respect academic freedom (de jure protection), only about 20% live in countries where academic freedom is well respected in practice (de facto protection). The gap exists despite many state and institutional pronouncements on the importance of academic freedom. The last two years alone have seen reports, statements, decisions, declarations, resolutions, and communiqués on academic freedom at the EU, the Council of Europe, the Inter-American Commission and the United Nations. All of these are important and welcome. But they point to the need for authoritative, international guidelines on implementing academic freedom; guidelines that cover the core elements of academic freedom, including legal protection; institutional autonomy; equitable access; professional and personal expression; sanctions, restrictions or loss of privileges; student expression; and shared responsibilities to protect academic freedom. Such implementation guidelines would provide a roadmap for increasing respect and protection, and a checklist for assessing adherence to existing state-level obligations. International guidelines on implementing academic freedom could be developed by an international expert working group, but greater impact would result from responsible state actors endorsing the guidelines concept and leading efforts to secure recognition and promulgation at the state level through regional or global institutions.

According to the latest data contained in the global Academic Freedom Index (Kinzelbach, K. et. al., 2021, while 94% of the global population live in countries that have legally pledged to respect academic freedom (de jure protection), only about 20% live in countries where academic freedom is well respected in practice (de facto protection) (Chart 1). Why the gap, and what can we do about it?

The core of the right to academic freedom is clear, but not well understood

Chart 1:  Data from the global Academic Freedom Index (Kinzelbach, K., et. al. (2021).

Chart 1:  Data from the global Academic Freedom Index (Kinzelbach, K., et. al. (2021).

Academic freedom - the freedom of teaching faculty and researchers to set instructional and research agendas based on evidence, truth and reason, and to communicate findings to colleagues, students and the public – is a guarantor of quality and a driver of innovation that empowers the academic community to serve the public good. As such, academic freedom matters not just to academics, but to everyone.

Academic freedom is protected under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (United Nations General Assembly, International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights [UNGA, ICESCR], 1966) in Articles 13 (right to education) and 15 (right to benefits of scientific progress), which has been ratified by 171 countries with only 22 non-signatories (United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights [OHCHR], 2022). Like press freedom, the outer boundaries of academic freedom can be fluid and contextual, but the central core of the right is clear: members of the academic community are free “to pursue, develop and transmit knowledge and ideas, through research, teaching, study, discussion, documentation, production, creation or writing.” It also includes “the liberty of individuals to express freely opinions about the institution or system in which they work, to fulfil their functions without discrimination or fear of repression by the State or any other player, to participate in professional or representative academic bodies, and to enjoy all the internationally recognised human rights applicable to other individuals in the same jurisdiction” (Kaye, 2020) (citing the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights [CESCR], 1999).

Recognising its importance, states, higher education systems, institutions, associations, faculty and student unions have long committed to respecting and promoting academic freedom, through such instruments as the UNESCO Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel (UNESCO RSHETP, 1997), the UNESCO Recommendation on the Status of Science and Scientific Researchers (UNESCO RSSR 1974, 2017), the Declaration on Rights and Duties Inherent in Academic Freedom (International Association of University Professors and Lecturers [IAUPL], 1982),  the Lima Declaration on Academic Freedom and Autonomy of Institutions of Higher Education, (World University Service [WUS], 1988), the Magna Charta Universitatum (Standing Conference of Rectors, Presidents and Vice-Chancellors of European Universities [CRE], 1988, 2020), the Dar es Salaam Declaration on Academic Freedom and Social Responsibility of Academics (Ardhi Institute Staff Assembly [ARISA] et. al., 1990), the Kampala Declaration on Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility (Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa [CODESRIA], 1990), the Amman Declaration on Academic Freedom and the Independence of Institutions of Higher Education and Scientific Research (Conference of Academic Freedom in Arab Universities, 2004), and the Juba Declaration on Academic Freedom and University Autonomy (CODESRIA, 2007).