Academic Freedom Policymaking at the European Higher Education Area

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.

The European Higher Education Area (EHEA) consists of a group of countries implementing reforms in higher education on the basis of common key values – such as academic freedom, institutional autonomy and the participation of students and staff in higher education governance. Through this process, known as the Bologna Process, countries, institutions and stakeholders continuously adapt their higher education systems making them more compatible and strengthening their quality assurance mechanisms. The Bologna Follow-up Group (BFUG) oversees the Bologna Process. Developments in relation to fundamental values in the EHEA are expected to be proposed at the next EHEA ministerial meeting in Tirana in 2024.  In that respect the Working Group on Fundamental Values is tasked with developing a “framework for the enhancement of the fundamental values of the EHEA that will foster self-reflection, constructive dialogue and peer-learning across national authorities, higher education institutions and organisations, while also making it possible to assess the degree to which these are honoured and implemented in our systems” (Rome, 2020, pg 5). The expert group is due to report by 2024.

Declarations and Communiqués

In the Rome Ministerial Communiqué (2020) academic freedom was framed as a fundamental value of the EHEA, and defined as “freedom of academic staff and students to engage in research, teaching, learning and communication in and with society without interference nor fear of reprisal”. The Communiqué was accompanied by Annex I, a Statement on Academic Freedom, which outlines a shared understanding of academic freedom throughout the EHEA.

The Paris Communiqué (2018) states that “[a]cademic freedom and integrity, institutional autonomy, participation of students and staff in higher education governance, and public responsibility for and of higher education form the backbone of the EHEA.”

The Yerevan Communiqué (2015) made a commitment to “support and protect students and staff in exercising their right to academic freedom and ensure their representation as full partners in the governance of autonomous higher education institutions.”

The Bologna Declaration (1999) is the main guiding document of the Bologna Process. It emphasised the need to further the independence and autonomy of all higher education institutions: “This is of the highest importance, given that Universities’ independence and autonomy ensure that higher education and research systems continuously adapt to changing needs, society’s demands and advances in scientific knowledge”. It directly references the Bologna Magna Charta Universitatum of 1988.