Report 20 April 2018

Forbidden Knowledge: Measuring Academic Freedom

by Felix Hoffmann, Katrin Kinzelbach               GPPi

An index on academic freedom can change the way scholars interact across borders, strengthen a global community that is committed to academic freedom, push back authoritarian influence in the university sector, and protect universities from being coopted for the purpose of political repression. It would also fill an important knowledge gap.

Existing indices on democracy or political freedom only touch on the subject, if they mention it at all. University rankings focus on academic excellence and reputation, but they ignore the varying levels of academic freedom around the world. This must change, because universities that censor knowledge and inquiry do not satisfy one of the fundamental criteria of academia.

By shaping our view of the world, indices and rankings have become powerful tools of global governance. Because there is no global measure of academic freedom, it is possible for universities in repressive countries to gain international reputation while disregarding and violating academic freedom. A new index would correct this development by fostering an engaged community of scholars, making data available, triggering debate, enabling research and advocacy on repression in the university sector, and by altering the structures of international research collaborations.

The report Forbidden Knowledge presents the findings of an expert consultation that took place in Cologne, Germany, between November 5 and 7, 2017. Based on a three-tiered definition, it discusses different methodological approaches to measuring academic freedom and political repression in the university sector. Following a critical review of different options, the report presents recommendations on how to conceptualize a new index and outlines practical steps toward its implementation on a global scale.


The full report as well as a visualization of the theory of change are available for download.

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