Participants of the Nordic meeting visited Åbo Akademi.

Nordic Meeting 2018: Trends in Academic Freedom

Academic freedom belongs to the core European values. Unfortunately, it is increasingly being threatened by alternative narratives for university governance and higher education. In particular, academic freedom is threatened by the notion of universities as particular kinds of corporations.

The conflict between academic freedom and the increased use of business mechanisms was clearly to be seen at the annual meeting of the Nordic university sector labour unions in Turku on 28-30 May 2018.

This article has two purposes. First, it will discuss how EU institutions and EU law seek to protect academic freedom. Second, the article will focus on certain current developments that seem to pose a threat to academic freedom in the light of the 2018 Nordic meeting.

Academic freedom in Europe

Academic freedom is a fundamental right. According to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted by the UN in 1966, the participating states “undertake to respect the freedom indispensable for scientific research and creative activity”. Moreover, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU provides that “the arts and scientific research shall be free of constraint” and that “academic freedom shall be respected”.

Academic freedom has regularly been endorsed at EU level. For example, the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) is based on common key values such as freedom of expression, autonomy for institutions, and academic freedom. The EHEA is managed by the Bologna process - the European University Association stated in its 2001 Salamanca Message that there is no progress of the Bologna process without academic freedom.

When defining academic freedom in Europe, it is customary to use the 1997 UNESCO Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel as a benchmark. The UNESCO Recommendations include, for example, (a) institutional autonomy, (b) self-governance, collegiality and appropriate academic leadership, (c) the freedom of higher-education teaching personnel to publish the results of research and scholarship in books, journals and databases of their own choice, and (d) security of employment.

Nordic trends

Generally, university teachers and researchers face similar challenges in all Nordic countries. First, there is a trend of increasing short-term political interference for short-term political gain. Second, the political narrative of choice seems to be that reducing the number of institutions of higher education will bring economies of scale. Third, political parties seem to be more interested in education than in basic research. Fourth, there is a shift from collegiality to managerialisation in university governance. Fifth, it is assumed universities and researchers perform better if they are made to compete for short-term funding. Sixth, universities have adapted to short-termism in the governance of the university sector by aligning their employment model with their funding model. In particular, they have transferred long-term risks and costs to employees through increased use of fixed-term, part-time or postdoc contracts.

One can highlight four interesting developments in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland, respectively.

Denmark stands out as a country that has taken the self-governance of science out of its formal university governance structure. The University Act of 2014 provides for a top-down hierarchy and a linear command chain. The board of a university is accountable to the minister. In the board, external members have a majority. The board appoints the rector and the university’s senior management team. The rector appoints the heads of academic units. There is thus hardly any room for the self-governance of science in the statutory governance model for universities. The self-governance of science nevertheless continues to exist outside the formal governance structure as the social practices of university researchers and teachers. For example, while professors may lack formal power, they still possess informal power as the gatekeepers of a scientific meritocracy.

In Norway, this year’s big question is whether the governance of corporations should be introduced as the model for the governance of universities. At the moment, universities are public sector entities under the Department for Governance of Higher Education and Research Institutions. Following its current political program (the Jeløya platform), the Norwegian government has initiated a study (mulighetsstudie) on new forms of university governance such as the corporate model. After public protests against the corporate model, the minister of research and higher education indicated on 13 July 2018 that the corporate model is just one of the alternatives on the table and that the starting point of the study will be academic freedom. The deadline for the study is 1 January 2019.

In addition to the corporate model, Norwegian university employees have protested against the introduction of open workspaces. The Norwegian government has decided to limit office space to 23 m2 per person. This would leave no room for a room of one’s own and a university employee would have to move to an open workspace shared by many. While open workspaces customarily are used in the corporate world to cut costs, they are likely to increase stress and reduce productivity in the university sector.

The Swedish government has commissioned a study on the governance and funding of institutions of higher education (U 2017:05 Styr- och resursutredningen, Strut) from Pam Fredman, the former rector of the University of Gothenburg. The results of this study are expected to be made public on 3 December 2018. The government says that the governance of higher education needs to be developed to facilitate the long-term business of institutions of higher education on grounds that the lack of long-termism is perceived as a problem by external stakeholders. The study is expected to propose four-year performance agreements and a lump sum for research and education for each university.

Finland stands out in two ways. First, university funding has been declining since 2011 and the level of basic funding is lower than in 2002 in real terms (Seuri & Vartiainen 2018). Second, the share of result-based funding is the highest in Europe. Since all universities have the same financial incentives as far as public funding is concerned, each university tends to choose the same strategy that is aligned with the funding model of the Ministry of Education and Culture. Moreover, each university passes the funding model through to university departments and employees. The micro-management of universities by the Ministry of Education and Culture hampers institutional autonomy, self-governance, the freedom to choose publication channels, and security of employment.


Academic freedom is at the core of recent developments in the Nordic countries. Depending on the country, it is threatened in different ways. The 1997 UNESCO Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel should be used as a benchmark to defend it.

text Petri Mäntysaari

Painetussa lehdessä sivu 32