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Calls for Constitutional Protection of Academic Freedom


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A call from academic and student union representatives for academic freedom to be enshrined in the country’s constitution has fuelled further debate in Sweden about improving protection of academic freedom and university autonomy.

The academic and student unions argue that the current higher education-related legislation protecting academic freedom is inadequate and has implications for the functions and values of universities and democracy.

In an open letter dated 2 March 2023, Linn Svärd, president of the National Union of Students (SFS), together with Hans Adolfsson who is chair of the Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions (SUHF) and Sanna Wolk, chair of the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers (SULF), wrote: “In order to secure academic freedom and a stable and long-term democracy, SFS, SUHF and SULF have decided to work together for a change in the Swedish legislation.

“Academic freedom is currently written into the law of higher education institutions. The institutions have been mandated to prioritise and protect the free pursuit of knowledge and its distribution. This is good, but it is not sufficient.’

They argue that the right of academics to share their scientifically grounded knowledge in the media, the classroom and the public should be ‘secured’ in the constitution.

“A free academy, free courts, free arts, and a free press are all foundations to secure democracy and protect human rights. Neither the politics of the day, interest organisations or ghost factories are going to direct what is going to be researched at our universities,” the union leaders wrote.

“Universities and university colleges are working against populism, resistance against facts and theories of conspiracy and are hence working to ringfence [society] against increased polarisation and simplification of debates in society. Science and knowledge based on facts are central for our democracy for pluralism and the basic human rights.”

The letter argued that academic freedom is a ‘prerequisite’ for higher education institutions to fulfil their mission.

“Academic freedom is composed of a multitude of factors that work together to create the basic preconditions for universities and university colleges. The core consists of the freedom of research and education together with organisational autonomy.”

Investigation into academic freedom

The open letter came in the wake of a 24 January 2023 press release issued by the Ministry of Higher Education and Research announcing an investigation by the Swedish Higher Education Authority into the role of higher education institutions in promoting academic freedom and a culture allowing the free pursuit and dissemination of knowledge.

The press release noted that the issue of academic freedom came to the fore in the second half of 2022 as a result of controversy over perceptions of a so-called ‘cancel culture’ in Swedish institutions, as reported by University World News.

More recently, on 23 March 2023, SULF published a study titled On Academic Freedom written by Professor Shirin Ahlbäck Öberg from Uppsala University which argues that institutional autonomy and individual academic freedom in Sweden are in need of protection.

A consistent thread in the document is concern over a weakening of the governance structures of public higher institutions.

Referring to a recent article published together with Johan Boberg, she highlighted findings from a study that indicate that as a result of reforms to autonomy in 2010 and 2020, the balance of power between collegial decision-making and top-down leadership has changed because of reforms affecting how academic leaders are employed.

“The results are worrying,” she wrote. “The study finds that the organisational representation of academic freedom and decision-making based on scientific competence has been significantly reduced by the majority of higher education institutions.”

EU perspective

Öberg’s study was presented at an SULF conference held in Stockholm on 29 March where academic freedom from a European perspective was on the agenda – capitalising on Sweden’s chair of the EU Council.

Speaking at the conference, Öberg described the formal right to autonomy as weak and said this was demonstrated by a European study (“Measuring academic freedom in Europe: a criterion refrenced approach”) that compared the legal regulation of universities institutional autonomy in all EU countries and in the UK and ranked Sweden 26 out of 28 nations.

Öberg also drew attention to Norway where the law on universities and university colleges underlined ‘academic freedom and responsibility’, and Finland where the new constitution from year 2000 implies legal protected freedom for science, arts and education.

Swedish Minister for Education Mats Persson told the conference he thought the higher education sector was “over-regulated” and that there was a “governance in detail and a bureaucratisation taking place [that] is not supportive of the individual researchers in their daily life”.

On the question of whether academic freedom should be included in the constitution he said: “Maybe.”

Freedom of research embedded

Janne Holmén, senior lecturer and associate professor in the Department of Education at Uppsala University, who has done research on academic freedom told University World News it is important to remember that the freedom of research is also mentioned in the Swedish constitution – a point also made by Öberg in her presentation.

Higher Education Law (högskolelagen) also states that research problems can be chosen freely, that research methods can be developed freely and that research results can be published freely.

However, there is no corresponding regulation of the freedom of higher education or academic freedom.

Svärd told University World News academic freedom is fundamental to the capacity of students and academic staff to freely seek knowledge within the academy.

“We know that academic freedom has already been restricted for students and teachers in other European countries, which is something that can happen quickly.

The role of the academy in a democracy

“Academic freedom, therefore, must be ensured in order to maintain the important role of the academy in a democracy, and also so that the academy is not reduced to a labour market policy instrument”, Svärd said.

“The protection that exists today in Sweden is a step in the right direction, but it is not enough, therefore we students want academic freedom to be constitutionally protected.”

Professor Ole Petter Ottersen, president of Karolinska Institute in Stockholm until February 2023 and one of the speakers at the March SULF conference, said he welcomed the idea of new legislation to strengthen legal support for academic freedom. However, he said: “It remains to be seen whether the changes extend beyond hand-waving to practical measures.”

Ottersen told University World News he had been taken by surprise during his years as president of Karolinska Institute by the lack of interest in academic freedom and institutional autonomy. “These issues should be centre stage in the public debate in each and every democratic society,” he said.

“In Sweden I have often experienced that academic freedom is misinterpreted as a privilege for the few while the reality is that it is a precondition for societal development and thus a necessity for all.”

Ottersen said while Sweden is ranked fourth in the most recent Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Democracy Index, when it comes to academic freedom, “Sweden does not enjoy such a prominent position. This discrepancy must be attended to. Thus, academic freedom is the bedrock of a democratic society and often the first victim when societies move in authoritarian direction. Vigilance is required.”

Responsibility to society recognised

Dr Agneta Bladh, immediate past chair of the Swedish Research Council and former Secretary of State, also welcomed what she called the recent “strong focus” on institutional autonomy and academic freedom.

“About 20-30 years ago, many Swedish politicians regarded academic freedom and the text in the Magna Charta Universitatum as a tendency for higher education institutions to isolate themselves in an ivory tower.

“However, when the new version of Magna Charta Universitatum 2020 was launched, where the concepts of academic freedom and institutional autonomy are repeated together with the recognised responsibility of higher education institutions to society as well as preserving a high integrity in dealing with all external agents, the attitude among politicians changed.

“As a result, legislation on academic freedom was added to the existing law on research freedom.

“I agree that this is not enough and there is also a need to secure academic freedom and institutional autonomy in the constitution, where freedom of research already has protection,” she said.

Source : University World News

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