Global index finds most countries do not respect academic freedom and shows signs of decline

published 14 April 2021 updated 29 April 2021

The second edition of the Academic Freedom Index (AFi) shows that only 20 per cent of the world’s population lives in countries where academic freedom is well protected. There are signs of decline in many countries. The pandemic, with the wide use of distance learning, produced additional threats. Academic autonomy may weaken as a lasting effect of the pandemic.

The research on academic freedom covers 175 countries and territories. It is based on assessments from multiple, independent experts from each country. The previous version was from March 2020 and included 144 countries and territories. Reports draw on relevant information and research going back to 1900.

Indicators are the following ones:

  1. Freedom to research and teach;
  2. Freedom of academic exchange and dissemination;
  3. Institutional autonomy;
  4. Campus integrity; and
  5. Freedom of academic and cultural expression.

In comparing the latest research with comparable results from a year ago, the survey showed the largest annual declines in academic freedom in Belarus, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, and Zambia.

One of the purposes of the index is to highlight academic freedom so that it will be recognised as an important determinant of the quality and contributions of universities. It should be a major factor in their assessment. Many comparisons and rankings of universities use “results” criteria without considering academic freedom. That means that universities in some of the most repressive countries receive high ratings. This does not accept that academic freedom is a universal right nor does it recognise its importance to quality education, teaching, and research.

COVID-19 impact on academic freedom

Distance learning, widely employed at university level, has not only been a technological and pedological challenge, but it changed the context of teaching and presented risks for academic freedom. This is even true for countries that score well in the index. The report cites, “increased opportunities for surveillance of research, teaching, and discourse, as well as sanctions, restrictions, self-censorship, and isolation.” It is not only that teaching can be monitored, but that words can be taken out of context and used by governments or political parties or extremists to attack and intimidate academics.

It is not yet clear what the long-term negative impact of the pandemic on academic freedom will be. As in other areas, there will need to be some re-building as well as an infusion of funds into higher education. It is important that the protection of academic freedom will a central part of that process.


The AFi provides a wealth of information and useful comparisons. It can assist and stimulate other research. It can enrich policy discussions and inform action by governments and parliaments, by international bodies, by trade unions and others in the university community, including administrators, academics, and students.

Among the recommendations for the use of the report are:

  • Higher education policymakers can use the data to help analyse the positive and negative impact on academic freedom in their countries related to legislation, reforms or other policy changes to help guide future policy.
  • Foreign policymakers can use the independent, reliable information in the index to help understand and react to violations of academic freedom, which is strongly linked with democracy and governance concerns. Academic freedom is rarely a major and visible consideration unless known academics are assaulted or imprisoned.
  • The UN can use the index in the examination of national compliance with the Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights on the provisions relevant to academic freedom.
  • Parliaments can use the index and trends shown by it to improve quality of higher education and research, provide security and autonomy for the sector, and ensure that it is making its full contribution to democratic debate and social and economic progress.
  • Advocacy Groups can use data to challenge states to meet their national and international obligations and in interventions with higher education authorities and institutions.
  • University Leaders and Administrators can use the data for global and historical comparisons to defend institutional autonomy and to help to strengthen the culture and practice of academic freedom.
  • Funding Organisations that support academic collaboration and exchanges can use the data to follow the conditions of academic freedom in countries in which they operate and use it in decisions related to future partners and activities as well as for ongoing projects.
  • University Rankings are issued by a limited number of influential bodies. They do not include academic freedom as a criterion in their comparisons of universities. The index could be used to remedy that omission and to give a more accurate ranking of the value and contributions of higher education.
  • The Academic Community often leads the fight for academic freedom. Academics and researchers and their trade unions or other organisations as well as students are the first “injured parties” when that freedom is not respected. They can use the index in the university community, but also in larger society.

Education International's mobilisation for academic freedom and democracy

Discussions in EI on academic freedom are in the context of the status of teachers and other education personnel and professional autonomy. However, it is also part of its work on defending and strengthening democracy.

When representatives of member organisations who represent workers in higher education gather, they discuss attacks by governments and other forces on academic freedom, they discuss attacks by governments and other forces on academic freedom, but also other factors that undermine its practice. In many countries, budget cuts have reduced resources for independent research. In some cases, this makes research dependent on private funding, often from corporations. Even when such research is not controlled, the focus of research is often determined by the funder. This may, in effect, limit academic freedom.

In many countries, teaching and research is being performed by people with precarious work contracts. Their insecure status may chill the exercise of academic freedom in order to avoid the risk of contracts not being renewed. It also may create barriers to participation in collegial governance structures, where they exist, due to possible consequences of freedom of expression.

Academic freedom is part of the essential rights to maintain strong democracies. High quality, independent research can serve as a sound basis for public decision-making and democratic debate. In recent years, disinformation, often instantly and massively transmitted by social media, has distorted debate, spread hatred, and polarised opinion. A dramatic example is the spread of false information on global warming. To have a good debate on that and other public policy issues, quality and reliable information provided by university researchers has become even more important. It can serve as a basis for societies to build consensus on fact and evidence rather than opinion.

Upcoming webinar on the Academic Freedom Index and other resources

Scholars at Risk will organise the webinar “Free Universities: Putting the Academic Freedom Index Into Action Through the UN Human Rights Systems” on 15 April. The webinar will present the AFi.

The report Free universities-Putting the Academic Freedom Index Into Action by Katrin Kinzelbach, Ilyas Saliba, Janika Spannagel, and Robert Quinn is available here

The article Why university rankings must include academic freedom by Robert Quinn, Janika Spannagel and Ilyas Saliba can also be found here