Academic Unfreedom


In this piece, Jacob Reynolds, the Head of Policy at Mathias Corvinus Collegium (MCC) Brussels, takes to task a recent EU Parliament report into academic freedom.

Academic freedom is a key part of the broader ideal of freedom of expression. Whilst the ideal has not always been exhibited with the vigour that one might hope, academic freedom within the university offers the hope of the genuine and disinterested pursuit of knowledge. For this to function effectively, academics must have the confidence that they can follow their studies in the direction they determine. In other words, freedom to think (or, as Kant put it, ‘dare to know’) is the most general definition and highest aspiration of academic freedom.  

It is therefore disappointing to note that the European Parliament’s new report, State of play of academic freedom in the EU Member States: Overview of de facto trends and developments, produced by the European Parliament’s Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA) – falls so short of suggesting a genuine response to the threats to academic freedom today.   

To some degree, the report captures the basic prejudices the EU bubble has towards individual countries: the report on Italy singles out corruption, some reports on smaller Member States worry about Chinese influence, and the report on Hungary presents the country as an illiberal basket-case (‘in [only] one EU Member State, Hungary, structural de facto violations of academic freedom are taking place’ (p.7)).  

However, the report has more serious shortcomings.

Instrumentalising knowledge

First, the report seems concerned not with academic freedom as an end in itself – the desire to provide academics with the autonomy to conduct research as they see fit in discussion with other academics and the humanist culture of the university – but with ‘the conditions that have to be in place for academic freedom to be exercised in the best possible way’ (p.19). This concern is elaborated when, in an ominous statement, the authors insist on a responsibility by academia towards ‘understanding and addressing the trends and forces that challenge and potentially weaken the democratic foundations of the EU and its Member States’ (p.25). According to the authors, academics – rather than pursuing independent research – have ‘responsibilities with respect to the handling of societal challenges and crises, such as climate change, growing inequality, or global pandemics’ (p.25). As should be obvious, the logical conclusion of this perspective is the reduction of academic institutions into policy organs devoted to promoting and protecting the current institutional arrangements and policy preoccupations of European Union elites.   

The issue at stake here is not about whether one is a critical friend or ardent proponent of the EU, but whether the report can genuinely contribute to an ideal with which the authors at least superficially seem to agree: the autonomy of academic research and avoiding the imperative to instrumentalise knowledge. The moment that academic freedom is understood as the degree to which academics contribute to maintaining support for the EU, strengthening democracy, or bettering society, is the moment when academic freedom becomes a mere means to policy objectives rather than a genuine expression of freedom of inquiry.  

The harms of advocacy research

The second issue with the report is its pre-occupation with turning the issue of academic freedom into a vehicle for advocacy. The recommendations from the report illustrate the degree to which the authors, in line with the long-standing policy of the EU bubble, are not interested in addressing a problem so much as producing a pipeline of advocacy for EU elites and their co-thinkers. There is not a single practical recommendation for improving academic freedom – such as providing more secure tenure for academics, introducing stronger policies to protect academics from ‘cancellation’, or funding for research in ‘controversial’ areas. Instead, almost every policy recommendation takes the form of greater funding for research on the topic of academic freedom or convening so-called ‘expert panels’ whose role is presumably to advocate for greater resources.  

Indeed, the stated objective of the report is as a preliminary step towards the formation of an ‘Academic Freedom Monitor, an independent status review published annually with new data’ (p.17). While, on the face of it, a monitoring organisation seems unobjectionable, the idea very clearly follows the favoured strategy of advocacy groups within the EU bubble who use annual monitoring devices as political weapons: a low score on such an indicator being a keyway in which recalcitrant states are brought into line with the policy objectives of EU elites. One has only to follow the progress of the EU’s annual ‘Rule of Law report’ – which both inexorably expanded in scope and become a little more than a political weapon – to see this process in action.  

The danger here is not just that supposedly impartial organisations become political tools but is more profound. The authors are effectively inviting the organs of the European Union to become the guardians of academic freedom. This is deeply misguided and conceptually self-contradictory: the ideal of academic freedom is a self-regulating one, meaning that academics have the duty to uphold the principles of academic freedom. However well-intentioned, the act of inviting outside bodies to act as gatekeepers puts academics at the mercy of external parties. At the mercy of outside influences, academic freedom ends up becoming a pale imitation of itself. A lively culture of support for academic freedom within the academy is the only guarantor of academic freedom.  

Cancel culture and the real threats to academic freedom

But most fundamental is the blindness the authors exhibit towards the fundamental threat to academic freedom today. As the report notes, threats to academic freedom were traditionally from ‘outside’ the Academy – governments suppressing certain research, businesses lobbying against certain lines of enquiry, wealthy individuals sponsoring favoured ideological causes. Yet today the threat to academic freedom is far more insidious because it resides within the university. Despite muted references to debates about ‘cancel culture’, the report is largely silent on what most academics regard as the most serious threat to their freedom: censorious colleagues, overbearing administrators, and easily outraged students. You only have to set foot on a university campus to understand that academics predominantly fear the institution itself, not those outside it.  

These contemporary threats to academic freedom are much more noteworthy than any other precisely because of how insidious they are. It may be easy to report on an angry mob assembled outside a university, or a government who revokes funding for a certain subject, but it’s much harder to report on research that is quietly shelved because of political sensitivities, students who are dissuaded from expressing dissenting opinions in order to guarantee a favourable review of their PhD thesis, or journals that refuse to publish ideas which contradict the mainstream. Such concerns are readily comprehensible by anyone who is familiar with John Stuart Mill’s distinction between the tyranny of government and the tyranny of polite society – the latter being more characteristic of the contemporary period.  

As is evidenced by the cases of Alain Finkielkraut in France, Marie-Luise Vollbrecht in Germany, or the recent investigation of TV4 in Sweden, academic freedom is indeed under threat. Only by attending to new forms of academic unfreedom can we accurately address the challenges of the moment. Sadly, the European Parliament’s attempt to understand academic freedom sidesteps this fundamental question. 

This article originally appeared on the MCC website as Academic unfreedom: why the Eu should steer clear of universities on 18 April 2023. It is republished here with the permission of the author.

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