Free Universities: Putting the Academic Freedom Index Into Action

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Students socializing on the campus of Central European University (CEU) in Budapest. CEU’s eviction from Hungary in 2018 is part of a larger trend of deterioration of academic freedom in the country. Source: Central European University /​Flickr

Academic freedom is fundamental to scientific progress, the pursuit of truth, research collaboration, and quality higher education. Plenty of universities and states have committed to safeguarding academic freedom, yet it remains under attack in many places.

As we are publishing this report, the global community is racing to respond to the novel coronavirus Sars-CoV‑2. Academics, both inside and outside of universities and in an extraordinarily broad range of disciplines, are playing a vital role in addressing the epidemiological, economic, political, and cultural dimensions of the response to the crisis, as they will in the eventual recovery and restoration of essential functions and services. The situation demonstrates that academic freedom matters to everyone — and in a situation of crisis, it can literally help to save lives.

The authors offer this report and index in the hope that it will help to defend academic freedom, for the present and the future of society. We can only achieve this goal if we monitor academic freedom carefully and consistently. To this end, new data is needed.

Prior efforts to collect data on academic freedom have been limited in scope and breadth. This paper introduces a brand-new, global time-series dataset based on expert assessments involving 1,810 scholars from around the world, covering the years 1900 to 2019. It includes more than 110,000 observation points, eight indicators, and an aggregate index on academic freedom, based on a Bayesian measurement model.

This dataset was developed collaboratively by experts at the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi), the Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU), the Scholars at Risk Network, and the V‑Dem Institute. The data is publicly available, and V‑Dem provides an online tool that can be used to analyze any of the indicators.

GP Pi A Fi global average

This graph shows overall trends in the global averages of the AFi’s five constituent indicators from 1900 to 2019. Note that the full scale is 0 – 4, but was truncated here to highlight changes over time.

The Academic Freedom Index (AFi) provides manifold opportunities for research, but also for policy debates among government officials, parliamentarians, research funders, university administrators, academics, students, and advocates alike. This report aims to inform such debates. After introducing the objectives and the dataset, it provides specific recommendations on how key stakeholders can apply the index to protect and promote academic freedom.

The full report as well as a working paper are available for download.