New threats to academic freedom globally have emerged as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the shift to physically distanced teaching, learning and examinations and virtual offerings or remote collaborations online, according to just-published global data and analysis.Most notable among these are increased opportunities for surveillance of research, teaching and discourse, as well as sanctions, restrictions, self-censorship and isolation, data from the Academic Freedom Index 2020, published on 11 March, shows.
“While this is especially true in repressive countries, online harassment can be experienced anywhere. Even if the coming year will see us emerge from the depths of the pandemic, states, higher education leaders and institutions, funders and advocates alike must remain alert to and guard against an entrenching of such threats to academic inquiry and expression, be they new or old,” say the authors of Free Universities: Putting the Academic Freedom Index into action, published by the Global Public Policy Institute and the Scholars at Risk network, also on 11 March.
“We must redouble our commitment to the principle that academic freedom matters – not just to higher education, but to everyone,” they say.
The authors of the report – Katrin Kinzelbach, professor at Friedrich-Alexander-Universitat Erlangen-Nurnberg; Ilyas Saliba and Janika Spannagel, both research fellows at the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi), Berlin; and Robert Quinn, executive director of Scholars at Risk – provide analysis of the second iteration of Academic Freedom Index (AFi) data.
The AFi draws on contributions by almost 2,000 country experts from around the world and covers 175 countries and territories (compared to 144 countries in the first edition) over the period from 1900 to 2020. The data is publicly available and includes more than 140,000 observation points, several indicators and an aggregate index on academic freedom, which is based on a Bayesian measurement model.
The index is a tool for research, but it also serves to inform policy debates among government officials, parliamentarians, research funders, university administrators, academics, students and advocates. Its development has been coordinated by Quinn and developed by Kinzelbach, Spannagel and Saliba, with infrastructure support from the V-Dem Institute, including its network of country experts.
“Academic freedom is a universal right and essential to quality education, teaching and research. It is a driver of innovation, enhances the capacity of scholars and students to acquire and generate knowledge, and thereby protects societies’ capacity for self- reflection,” Kinzelbach et al say in the GPPi report.
“While states and universities throughout the world have long committed to respecting and protecting academic freedom, it remains poorly understood – and is under attack in many places.”
From 2019 to 2020, the countries that experienced the largest declines in academic freedom levels were Belarus, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka and Zambia.
Saliba says that “in most of the countries where academic freedom dropped significantly in comparison to 2019, the deterioration can 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.”
He added that “digital forms of teaching and collaboration often facilitated surveillance and very likely incentivised self-censorship in repressive settings”.
Spannagel said that scholars’ freedom to express themselves on politically salient issues is under great strain – the global average score for this indicator has been dropping steadily since 2013.
“We believe this can be partly attributed to increasing political polarisation in societies around the world.”
Furthermore, the data also shows clear deteriorations in campus integrity in individual countries. “This indicator assesses the extent to which campuses are free from surveillance or security infringements. For example, between 2019 and 2020, campus integrity dropped sharply in Belarus and also in Poland.”
The Gambia, on the other hand, is a country on a positive trajectory. “The AFi indicator the Gambia received the highest score for is scholars’ freedom to collaborate and to disseminate their findings – this is a very encouraging development,” said Spannagel.
The AFi data shows that only one in five countries protects academic freedom well, based on five indicators: Freedom to research and teach, freedom of academic exchange and dissemination, institutional autonomy, campus integrity, and freedom of academic and cultural expression.
Most of those countries are in the West, including North America, Europe and Australasia. But they include disparate developing countries such as Mongolia, Nepal, Bolivia, Peru, Nigeria and Burkina Faso.
The countries in the lowest of five bands of rating are mostly found in the Near and Middle East and East and Southeast Asia, and include Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, China and Thailand.
The detailed data that makes up the aggregate AFi is available online and can also be accessed using online visualisation tools.
The data can be used by scholars for further studies on academic freedom, but also by university leaders, research funders and policy-makers to inform science and higher education policy, as well as for risk management strategies and daily operational decisions on where to take extra safeguarding measures against infringements.
The GPPi report recommends that higher education policy-makers respond to declining AFi scores by intensifying information gathering and independent assessment, making recommendations to the authorities, developing twinning programmes to address shortcomings or violations identified, sharing best practice and capacity development measures with the authorities, and supporting scholar and student unions.
The GPPi urges diplomats and government representatives of foreign governments, if states restrict scholars’ travel, arrest them, violently assault them or otherwise target them with repressive measures, to express concerns over these violations and raise them bilaterally with the host government. In the same spirit, embassies should provide fast-track visas for at-risk scholars.
It says the UN system and parliaments can use AFi data to monitor violations and compliance.
But it also urges university leaders and administrators to use AFi data domestically when advocating for material and policy support for their institutions and their national higher education system.