Academic freedom and institutional autonomy need to be defended

University of Helsinki participated in drawing up a declaration on academic freedom and institutional autonomy, approved at the Global Forum on Academic Freedom, Institutional Autonomy, and the Future of Democracy held at the Council of Europe on 20–21 June 2019.

The declaration states that academic freedom and institutional autonomy play just as essential a role in a functioning democracy as free media and civil society.

According to the declaration, academic freedom and institutional autonomy are increasingly undermined in many parts of the world. This matter needs international attention, because it constitutes an attack on the core values of democracy.

As the declaration states, countries that are considered to count among established democracies are not immune to the temptations of silencing critical voices in academia, as can be seen in the case of the Central European University.

“The Autonomy of the university and academic freedom are central underlying factors of a democratic society. The realisation of academic freedom and autonomy requires the contribution of the entire university community. University leadership carries a particularly great responsibility to ensure this, while society's decision-makers play a central role in supporting the autonomy of the university,” says Kaarle Hämeri, chancellor of the University of Helsinki.

Maintaining academic freedom and autonomy requires constant vigilance.

“On a global scale, the situation varies significantly between countries. What academic freedom means – how it differs from freedom of opinion – and how this freedom may be threatened or restricted, have not been defined very clearly conceptually,” Hämeri notes. He has established a group to develop science communication at the University of Helsinki.

According to the declaration, academic freedom can be understood as freedom of expression and research but also as the freedom to improve society. Freedom of expression or autonomy must not be limited on political grounds.

The declaration states that academic freedom and autonomy are also threatened if funding bodies define the majority of topics of research and teaching. Because of this, public funding is essential, but external funding from multiple sources when not narrowly earmarked can also strengthen academic freedom and institutional autonomy.

The declaration further observes that administrative regulations, indifference with regard to research, demands of immediate and measurable return on investment, a limited view of utility, and seeing higher education only through the lens of a narrow economic agenda also threaten academic freedom and autonomy.

“The starting points in Finland are good, but even here researchers encounter dismissive attitudes and even hate speech. In addition, external sources have a very significant role in funding research in Finland. From the viewpoint of academic freedom and autonomy, it is important that this funding is directed mostly to researcher-based projects,” Hämeri notes.

The European University Association EUA divides institutional autonomy into financial, staffing, academic and organisational autonomy. Finland has been ranked third in the EUA assessment of university autonomy.

The Ministry of Education and Culture has taken an active role in drawing up the declaration. At the forum, University of Helsinki was represented by Director of Administration Esa Hämäläinen.

Read the entire declaration here.

The forum was organised by the Council of Europe; the International Consortium for Higher Education, Civic Responsibility and Democracy; the Organization of American States; the Magna Charta Observatory; and the International Association of Universities.