28 April 2021

On April 15, Scholars at Risk held the webinar: ‘Free Universities: Putting the Academic Freedom Index Into Action Through the UN Human Rights system’.

This high-level event presented the 2020 Academic Freedom Index (AFi) a robust instrument that can inform research and drive human rights policy debates among government officials, parliamentarians, research funders, university administrators, academics, students, and advocates. The AFi draws on contributions by some 2,000 country experts from around the world and covers 175 countries and territories over the period from 1900 to 2020.

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. While states and universities throughout the world have long committed to respecting academic freedom, it remains poorly understood – and is under attack in many places, including new threats ushered in by the pandemic. Most notable among these are increased opportunities for the surveillance of research, teaching and discourse, as well as sanctions, restrictions, self-censorship, and isolation. While these measures are especially prevalent in repressive countries, online harassment can happen anywhere. In the coming year, states, higher education leaders and institutions, funders, and advocates alike must remain alert to and guard against such threats to academic inquiry and expression.

Interventions were given by Ms. Irene Khan, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of freedom of opinion and expression Mr. Mikel Mancisidor, Member of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) Ms. Janika Spannagel, Research Fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi). Due to technical issues, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, Dr Koumbou Boly Barry was unable to participate.

Two thirds of the world do not enjoy full academic freedom
The event featured fruitful discussions; Mikel Mancisidor indicated that the Index can help the work of the Committee in the dialogue with the State parties. Irene Khan highlighted that academic freedom is a life issue, putting scholars at risk in many countries, and including several rights such as the right to education but also the right to information, freedom of association and freedom to conduct scientific research. Her discussion stressed that it is a pillar of a democratic society and that it must be protected, including in the digital age we are, mentioning that the share of information should be encrypted. She also emphasised that freedom of education is an essential feature when assessing the quality of an academic institution highlighting that there is no quality teaching without academic freedom because free mind and free thinking are essential for the development of knowledge. She added that the environment of scholars has a huge impact on the quality of the knowledge, and pointed out that the enforcement of the law is a main challenge. As knowledge is a threat for power, there are many restrictions to academic freedom such as interference through financing, teacher appointment or travel.

The full webinar can be accessed here.

Right to Education Initiative acted as a co-sponsor to the event, alongside Cara (Council for At-risk Academics, London), Education International, European Students’ Union (ESU), European University Association (EUA), Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi), Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund (SAIH), and Open Society Foundations, Education Support Program (OSF).