Research Banner for Academic Freedom

Academic Freedom

Dr Terence Karran's investigations into the legal and constitutional guarantees securing academic freedom in universities across Europe has led to better protection for thousands of academics.

Academic freedom concerns the rights of university lecturers to carry out their teaching and research without undue interference – whether from their employers, their funders or the state.

Dr Karran, from the Centre for Educational Research and Development at the University of Lincoln, examined the origins of academic freedom and its constitutional and legal protections across the states of the European Union. This included a comparative analysis across the member states, identifying those nations where academic freedom was not well protected.

He discovered the level of protection varies greatly across Europe, with only about one third of EU countries compliant with every element of the ‘1997 UNESCO Recommendation concerning the status of higher-education teaching personnel’. The lowest levels of protection were in Denmark and the UK. Former Soviet Union countries provided much firmer legal safeguards to their academics, having rewritten their constitutions in recent years.

His findings were widely reported in the UK, but it was in Denmark that they had their most profound impact. There was an outcry in the Danish media which led to heated discussions in the Danish Parliament. The Danish University Lecturers Association, representing more than 27,000 members across 44 higher education institutions, made an appeal to UNESCO which forced the government to undertake an independent evaluation of academic freedom in Denmark.

"Academics, through their knowledge, keep governments on their mettle. Academics can question government policy directly. In that sense, academic freedom is a freedom not of the few but for the many."

The issue centred on the wording of the 2003 Danish University Act. The review found the law was not sufficient to protect academic freedom, and as a result, the law was redrafted in 2011 to improve legal protection for academics.

There are four important strands to academic freedom; the first is the freedom to research. This includes the right to choose the subject of study, the methodology and the ability to publish findings without interference.

The second is the freedom to teach, which includes the right to determine the curriculum, the mode of teaching, means of assessment and who should be taught.

The third and fourth strands concern security of employment (known as academic tenure), and the right to participate in how universities are run (known as academic governance).

One proposal arising from Dr Karran's research was the suggestion of creating of a 'Magna Carta' for academic freedom across the EU. This so far has not been established.