Academic Freedom Policymaking at the European Union

The need for policies and actions to defend academic freedom and institutional autonomy, and more generally higher education and democratic values, has received growing attention by European policy makers and the higher education community in Europe, including the European Union, the Council of Europe, and the European Higher Education Area. Increasingly, this attention has also included affirmation of the importance of supporting displaced, at-risk and refugee scholars, and the acknowledgement of the interdependence between human rights and the advancement of academic freedom.

On 8 March 2022, the French Presidency of the Council of the European Union presented the Marseille Declaration on international cooperation in research and innovation which sets out nine values and principles shared by the Member States and the European Commission such as the freedom of scientific research, ethics and integrity, and open science. The declaration builds on the global approach to research and innovation, adopted by the Council on 28 September to identify key actions to strengthen the EU’s global role in research and innovation, with a strong focus on shared fundamental values and principles, cooperation by reciprocity, the need for strategic autonomy and freedom of scientific research.

On 18 January 2022, the European Commission released its European Strategy for Universities, (ES4U), which commits to ensuring academic freedom in higher education institutions is at the core of all higher education policies developed at EU level, as well as in the Bologna Process (para. 4.3).  It was accompanied by a proposal for a Council Recommendation on building bridges for effective European higher education cooperation as well as a European Commission staff working document which discusses what is needed to foster and protect academic, freedom, institution autonomy and fundamental values (para 6.3). On 6 April 2022, the EU ministers for higher education approved Council conclusions on a European strategy empowering higher education institutions for the future of Europe and adopted the above-mentioned Recommendation.

On 18 January 2022, the European Commission released a Staff Working Document on Tackling Research and Innovation Foreign Interference. It is a set of guidelines on dealing with foreign interference targeting EU research organisations and higher education institutions. These guidelines aim to protect fundamental values by safeguarding academic freedom, integrity and institutional autonomy, and to shield students, researchers and innovators, and key research findings, from coercive, covert, deceptive or corrupting foreign actors. They were developed following a commitment made in the European Commission Communication on the Global Approach to Research and Innovation (COM(2021) 252 final).

On 15 December 2021, the European Commission published the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) Guidelines for inclusion of researchers at risk, with input from the Inspireurope project. The MSCA are the European Union’s flagship instrument to support the mobility, training and career development of researchers, as well as the establishment of excellent doctoral and post-doctoral programmes. The guidelines encourage all MSCA applicants and beneficiaries are encouraged to take measures to facilitate the participation of researchers-at-risk in MSCA-funded fellowship programmes and projects.

On 13 July 2021, the Strategic Forum for International S&T Cooperation (SFIC) adopted an opinion on the implementation of the Bonn Declaration on Freedom of Scientific Research in international cooperation in research and innovation, and provides concrete recommendations, such as the establishment of a dedicated fellowship scheme open to non-EU researchers whose freedom of scientific research is under threat, and the integration of scientific freedom in international agreements.

On 18 May 2021, the European Commission adopted a Communication on its Global Approach to Research and Innovation (COM(2021) 252 final) termed ‘Europe’s strategy for international cooperation in a changing world’. The Communication was supported by the Council conclusions of 28 September 2021. The Communication acknowledges that “[s]cientific research thrives thanks to freedom of thought, the development of a critical mind, argumentation based on evidence and the rejection of the argument of authority”, and that the EU should “continue to offer researchers and innovators a democratic, inclusive and supportive environment, devoid of political interference, defending academic freedom and the opportunity for curiosity-driven research, under the respect and protection of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights” (para. 2). The Communication goes on to state that “[a]cademic freedom, integrity and institutional autonomy form the backbone of universities and higher education institutions in the EU. The EU and its Member States should promote and protect these common fundamental values internationally and uphold the principles of the Bonn Declaration on Freedom of Scientific Research vis-à-vis third countries”. (para 2)

On 28 May 2021, Regulation 2021/817 established Erasmus+, the EU Programme for education and training, youth and sport, and stated that in line with Article 13 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, it should be ensured that academic freedom is respected by the countries receiving funds under the Programme (para. 64). The Programme is a key component of building a European Education Area.

On 28 April 2021, Regulation (EU) 2021/695, established Horizon Europe, the Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, laying down its rules for participation and dissemination. The Programme (which runs from 2021 to 2027) explicitly states that in ‘order to guarantee scientific excellence, and in line with Article 13 of the Charter, the Programme should promote the respect of academic freedom in all countries benefiting from its funds’ (see para. 72).

On 3 December 2020, the European Commission published the European Democracy Action Plan (COM(2020) 790 final). Set to run from 2019-2024, it is designed to promote free and fair elections, strengthen media freedom and counter disinformation within the EU. The Plan explicitly commits to ensuring “academic freedom in higher education institutions is also at the core of all higher education policies developed at EU-level” (para. 4.3).

On 6 October 2020, the Court of Justice of the EU, (CJEU), released its judgment on restrictions on academic freedom imposed by the Hungarian government (C-66/18 – Commission v Hungary). The  CJEU found that the law violated Hungary’s commitments under the World Trade Organization, imposed unacceptable restrictions on internal market freedoms such as the freedom of establishment and the free movement of services, and infringed on academic freedom as enshrined in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. The Court emphasised that academic freedom not only has an individual dimension related to the freedom of expression and the dissemination of research, but also an institutional and organisational dimension reflected in the autonomy of higher education institutions. It was welcomed by the Central Europe University (CEU, October 2021) and SAR (October, 2021). The judgment follows the Opinion of the Advocate General released on the 5 March 2020. The case was sparked by the initial concerns of the European Commission.

On 18 November 2020, the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy (2020-2024) set out the EU’s priorities in this field in its relations with all third countries. It confirms that protecting academic freedom and institutional autonomy are among the EU’s external relations policy objectives (p. 15, para. j). The Action Plan also explicitly lists academics, alongside journalists, human rights defenders, and other such relevant actors, as individuals warranting the EU’s support in defending them ‘to exercise their roles free from any form of intimidation, discrimination or violence.’ (p. 24, para. a.).

On 20 October 2020, the German presidency of the EU Council presented the Bonn Declaration on Freedom of Scientific Research at the Ministerial Conference on the European Research Area, where it was adopted by the 27 Research Ministers of the EU and the European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth. The declaration states “freedom of scientific research is a universal right and public good”. Moreover, “[i]t applies to all types of research organisations and scholarship and to all academic disciplines” and “encompasses the right to freely define research questions, choose and develop theories, gather empirical material and employ sound academic research methods, to question accepted wisdom and bring forward new ideas”. In 2021 the Strategic Forum for International S&T Cooperation (SFIC) published an Opinion to support its implementation.

On 30 September 2020, the European Commission published a communication on a new European Research Area (ERA) for Research and Innovation which stated that “[w]ithout academic freedom, science cannot progress and the ERA cannot function” (pg. 15). In late 2021, the Council of the EU adopted a Pact for Research and Innovation in Europe, as the foundation of the “new ERA”, as well as a new governance framework for its implementation. Furthermore, the Council adopted the first ERA Policy Agenda for the years 2022-2024, Action 6 of which, outlines activities to deepen the ERA through protecting academic freedom in Europe. Key documents concerning the ERA Policy Agenda, including Action 6, can be found at the ERA Portal.

On 29 November 2018, the European Parliament in its Recommendation on Defence of academic freedom in the EU’s external action observed that ‘the academic community and education institutions are increasingly vulnerable to interference, pressure or repression from states, the business sector or other non-state actors’, and that ‘every year, hundreds of attacks on universities, higher education institutions and their members are reported around the world’ (para. K), undermining ‘research, study, teaching, public discourse and the right to education, eroding academic quality and social, political, economic and cultural development’ (para. H). The Recommendation proposes a range of responses.

On 1 December 2009, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union enshrined into primary EU law a wide array of fundamental rights enjoyed by EU citizens and residents. Article 13 entitled, ‘Freedom of the arts and sciences’ states that “[t]he arts and scientific research shall be free of constraint. Academic freedom shall be respected”. Article 13 overlaps with other Charter rights such as Article 10 (freedom of thought, conscience and religion), Article 11 (freedom of expression and information) and Article 14 (the right to education).