EI opinion on the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly's Recommendation on Academic Freedom and University Autonomy

published 13 July 2006 updated 13 July 2006

During its (26-30) June sitting, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) adopted a Recommendation on Academic Freedom and University Autonomy.

At the outset, what can be said of this recommendation is that it is a good balance between transparency, accountability and quality and quality assurance, which it refers to as “pre-conditions for granting universities academic freedom and institutional autonomy”. The recommendation is not a revolution in terms of its content. There are literally very few things that can be called ‘new’. This is particularly true in terms of the fact that it is mostly based on the Magna Charta Universitatum of the Observatory for University Values and Rights. This document, fist signed by European Rectors in 1988, is built on the issue of academic freedom and university autonomy.

The recommendation reaffirms the 4 general principles of university autonomy and academic freedom, as follows:

  • the guarantee of freedom of expression, action, disseminating information, of unrestricted inquiry in the pursuit and distribution of knowledge and truth;
  • the manifestation of an independent commitment to the traditional and still essential cultural and social mission of the university, in terms of intellectually beneficial policy, good governance and efficient management;
  • proof that violations of academic freedom and university autonomy result in intellectual relapse, and consequently in social and economic stagnation;
  • the need to react to the changing needs of societies that they should serve and help educate and develop, with sufficient detachment to maintain a critical distance and to take a longer term view.

The first novelty which is important to consider is the level at which this issue is treated. The PACE is one of the two statutory organs of the Council of Europe, which is composed of a Committee of Ministers (the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, meeting usually at the level of their deputies) and an Assembly representing the political forces in its member states. By means of this recommendation, the PACE reaffirms the right to academic freedom and university autonomy in accordance with the Magna Charta Universtitatum, thus endorsing what was previously decided at an academic level. It thus addresses an issue which is of continuing concern to the academic world at a higher level than that at which it was previously treated, taking a bottom-up approach in this respect, and adding a European parliamentary dimension to the work of the Observatory.

A second novelty of this recommendation is the reference it makes to the “advent of the knowledge society”, affirming that it is necessary to draw up a “new contract” between, university and society, which would reflect and recognise new developments. In this respect, it notes that the academic freedom of researchers, scholars and teachers, and institutional autonomy need to be re-justified under contemporary conditions. However, it then underlines the need to guarantee these principles legislatively, and preferably constitutionally. This is tied to the above-mentioned aspect of the different level of treatment of this issue, as it is only at this level that it is possible to move forward in providing such a guarantee. In this respect, the recommendation puts forward concrete suggestions as first steps:

  • Encouraging the Council of Europe, through its relevant bodies, to act to the effect of “reaffirming the vital importance of academic freedom and university autonomy and contribute to an open political dialogue on the understanding of the concepts in the complex and changing reality of our modern societies”.
  • Resolving to “co-operate with the Observatory of the Magna Charta Universitatum in monitoring the observance of the principles of academic freedom and university autonomy in Europe”.
  • Recommending that the Committee of Ministers strengthen its work on academic freedom and university autonomy “as a fundamental requirement of any democratic society”.
  • Inviting the Committee of Ministers to “require recognition of academic freedom and university autonomy as a condition for membership of the Council of Europe.”

This recommendation focuses on a central concern for higher education institutions and academics, mixing most of the old with some things new.

It is also of interest when compared to the Communiqués of the Bologna Process, where it is possible to trace the issue of the importance of involvement of higher education institutions back to the Prague Communiqué of 2001, as reaffirmed in the Berlin [2003] and Bergen [2005] Communiqués.

It is also particularly significant to note that the 1997 UNESCO Recommendation on the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel very much treats the issue of academic freedom and institutional autonomy along the same lines of the principles mentioned above, with underlined emphasis on self-governance, collegiality and appropriate academic leadership [art. 17-21].