Global academic freedom continues to fall

March 11, 2021
Academic freedom is in decline. (AP Image/Chiang Ying-ying)

Academic freedom is in decline. (AP Image/Chiang Ying-ying)

Academic freedom declined around the world in 2020, driven in part by crackdowns in Hong Kong, Belarus and Sri Lanka, according to new data shared on Thursday by a group of European political scientists and watchdogs who say the ability to research and express opinions freely is threatened on campuses across the globe. 

The lead researchers compiled measurements of academic freedom by having more than 2,000 country-level specialists evaluate five indicators: freedom to research and teach, freedom of academic exchange and dissemination, institutional autonomy, campus integrity and freedom of academic and cultural expression. They then compiled the data and released it through an interactive online tool

"It's an assessment of academic freedom and how it has changed over time," said co-author Katrin Kinzelbach, a political scientist at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany. "In democracies, academic freedom tends to be very well respected, and in autocracies it tends to be quite bad." 

Democracies that have experienced turns toward right-wing populism in recent years, like India and Brazil, performed especially poorly in the researchers' system of classifying academic freedom, called the Academic Freedom Index. 

Brazil's academic freedom score fell from 0.89 out of 1.0 in 2017 — roughly the same as the U.S. — to 0.44 in 2020, following the election of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro in 2018. 

India's score fell from 0.65 in 2013 to 0.46 in 2020, as Hindu nationalist leader Narendra Modi cracked down on Muslim minority groups after being elected prime minister in 2014. 

While these two nations — among the world's largest countries by population — experienced a decline in academic freedom during the 2010s overall, their academic freedom scores only changed marginally between 2019 and 2020. 

Hong Kong, however, experienced an almost exponential decline in academic freedom both between 2019 and 2020, and over the past decade more broadly. The city-state's score plummeted from 0.82 in 2010 to 0.47 in 2019, then fell even further to 0.35 in 2020 as China imposed a national security law that has virtually eliminated the city's pro-democracy protest movement and allowed police to arrest anyone accused of not supporting the government, including academics

Belarus also saw a broad crackdown on free speech in 2020, as leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka ordered the arrests of masses of university students who were peacefully protesting the results of his contested reelection, as well as journalists and opposition leaders. 

"In most of the countries where academic freedom dropped significantly in comparison to 2019, the deterioration can be traced to either novel regulations that limit the freedom to research, teach and publish, or to repressive political acts against pro-democracy movements with a strong base among students and faculty," said co-author Ilyas Saliba from the Global Public Policy Institute, a Berlin think tank. 

The worldwide, population-weighted academic freedom score was 0.63 in 2020, down from 0.64 in 2019. 

Just one-fifth of the world's population live in countries that have what the researchers consider to be "scientific freedom," with an academic freedom score of 0.8 or higher. That includes the U.S. and all of Western Europe, as well as countries like South Korea, Gambia, Mongolia and Haiti.

Among the five indicators the researchers analyzed, freedom to research and teach measured the degree to which academics feel they are able to pursue their intellectual interests without interference or pressure to self-censor; freedom of academic exchange and dissemination gauged how free academics are to exchange and disseminate their ideas with other researchers; institutional autonomy measured whether non-academic actors like politicians exerted control over universities' priorities; campus integrity indicated if campuses were threatened by surveillance, violence, intimidation and closures; and freedom of academic and cultural expression gauged the degree to which members of the academic community are able to speak about broader political issues. 

The freedom of academic and cultural expression has fallen around the world for seven years in a row, the researchers said. 

In addition to Kinzelbach and Saliba, the system of classifying academic freedom was developed by Jannika Spannagel of the Global Public Policy Institute and Robert Quinn from the Scholars at Risk Network, a New York University-based organization that advocates for the human rights of scholars in places like Afghanistan, Turkey and Hong Kong. The researchers compiled and presented the data with the help of the University of Gothenburg's Varieties of Democracy program. 

"Scholars' freedom to express themselves on politically salient issues is under great strain — the global average score for this indicator has been dropping steadily since 2013," Spannagel said. "We believe this can be partly attributed to increasing political polarization in societies around the world."

After gathering evaluations of academic conditions in 175 countries from more than 2,000 country-level specialists, the researchers aggregated the data using a custom-built Bayesian measurement model.

The researchers said the purpose of their study was primarily to provide a picture of academic conditions across countries rather than to delineate the specific causes of changes in those conditions. 

However, they warned that the shift to online learning during the pandemic may have further eroded academic freedom in places where it is at risk. 

"Digital forms of instruction facilitate surveillance and very likely incentivize self-censorship in repressive settings," Saliba said. 

The index, called "The Academic Freedom Index," updated on the University of Gothenburg's Varieties of Democracy website on Mar. 11, was created by Katrin Kinzelbach, University of Erlangen-Nuremberg; Ilyas Saliba and Jannika Spannagel of the Global Public Policy Institute; and Robert Quinn from the Scholars at Risk Network. 

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