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Academic freedom’s ‘silent spring’

About the working group

A common repertoire of governance and management reforms have been introduced in many universities as part of strategies to integrate European research and teaching. Governments and university leaders proclaim their support for academic freedom and hold that their reforms do not challenge academics’ freedom to research, teach and speak in public.

Yet the inaugural search conference for this project identified how, in ways that have not been very visible, the changing conditions of academic work have been impinging on academic freedom and changing university values. Why haven’t academics reacted more strongly to protect the core value of their work?

One participant likened academics to frogs in a pot: if they were thrown into boiling water, they would immediately jump out, but when the water temperature rises gradually they attune themselves and end up boiled. In subsequent discussions, the metaphor ‘Silent Spring’ drew on Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, which showed the quiet way that agricultural practices had changed and devastated the countryside, until suddenly she noticed there were no birds singing in the spring any more.

The group is exploring the following questions:

  • Why is academic freedom important for Europe’s future and values?
  • How can we understand any erosion of Academic Freedom across time, and point out its implications or consequences?
  • How are governance and management systems undermining academic freedom? What alternatives exist and what changes do we propose so that universities can play an effective role in critical issues facing Europe’s future?

Issues raised so far

  • Why is academic freedom important? Academic freedom is granted by society not as an individual academic’s right, but as a duty for the whole collective endeavor of universities. Academics have the social responsibility to analyse what is happening in a field and think otherwise for the benefit of society, even if this is contended politically. Swedish rector, Linda Smith says that ‘in universities that are market-driven or cooperating too closely with industry’ academic freedom is threatened by a contemporary ‘subtle shift toward caution’ (2001: 283) yet fulfilling this social responsibility is more important than ever (Smith 2001: 277, 283, quoted in Wright 2014)
  • Change of European/university values? In 1970s, European values were human rights, democracy, rule of law, rational/secular thinking - values that chimed with those of European universities. Pasture (2018) shows that these are challenged by a resurgence of ‘Christian’ values in parts of Europe. (see also the work of Sverker Gustavsson https://katalog.uu.se/profile/?id=svetsg). The CEU is at the centre of such a clash of values (although its role in the transition to neoliberal capitalism is more complicated), and less highlighted cases may exist throughout Europe.
  • Which aspects of academic freedom that are under attack? Scott (1995) delineates cognitive, regulative and normative aspects of organisations and the last two have been changing in universities. What conditions allowed that to happen?
  • Governments deny they are touching academic freedom – but they do so through governance mechanisms. Academic freedom is shaped by auditing and measuring, funding rules and political agendas.
    Examples include:

o   Accreditation systems that mean academics are not free to change a curriculum in response to educational needs.

o   Systems for measuring universities, departments and individuals influence knowledge practices (Rowlands and Wright 2019) by making clear ‘what counts’ and directing efforts away from e.g. widening public involvement in education and knowledge sharing.

o   Evaluations are supposed to be conducted by independent agencies (ENQA) or peer review but they are part of systems that are increasingly politically instrumentalised.

o   Legal and leadership systems that directly or indirectly limit academic freedom (Anderson 2019, Massen et al. 2017, Karran 2016. 2017, working with Scholars at Risk).

o   Employment contracts and career progression – major considerations are teaching that satisfies students as (paying) customers and publications in designated journals – this can undermine the space for academics to exercise professional judgement.

o   Direct checks and interventions in academic research (e.g. Aarhus University scandals over research contracts) and teaching (as one participant reported ‘Academics should have protection from their own university, to deliver a pedagogical experience. Instead, they say you’re doing wrong, you get a phone call, are you sure you want to do that? If you don’t respond, you’re out’.

o   National funding policies (e.g. the de-internationalisation of Danish higher education).


  • What alternative forms of governance are emerging?

o   ‘Living Values in Higher Education Institutions’ the Magna Charta Observatory’s project and toolkit to enable university leaders to better align their governance and management with university values. (Sijbolt Noorda (2019) President of MCO’s keynote to our project). This initiative has been criticised for weaknesses by Stølen and Gornitzka (2019).

o   Experience of Mondragon University, Spain and experiments with cooperative universities and cooperative education in UK

o   Free universities and critical pedagogies (Thompsett 2017, Amsler 2017, 2019)


  • What form do the universities have to take to materialise academic freedom in teaching, research and 3rd mission?

o   Our task to reveal the connections between the above issues, show how they affect academic freedom, and suggest alternatives. (Often academics seem not to express concern because they assume academic freedom is not connected to the above issues).


  • Search of literature and current research produced by the project’s 18 partners and more widely.
  • Changing university/European values (Find an opportunity to invite Sverker Gustavsson and/or Patrick Pasture to come to a project event and give a talk).
  • What does academic freedom mean, to whom? How are meanings contested? How is academic freedom affected by governance structures? (Sharon Rider, Prof. of Philosophy Upsalla University is working on these issues. She is visiting CHEF 30th March-2nd April 2020, and giving a CHEF talk).
  • Identify which systems of governance and management are silently undermining academic freedom and how? (How to do this? How to break the silence?).
  • Enter into dialogue with people working on this in EU directorate, European Universities Association, Scholars at Risk, - where else? – and maintain conversation with Sijbolt Noorda and Magna Charta Observatory.
  • Develop these ideas by responding to a call for papers in early 2020 for a special issue of Higher Education Quarterly on ‘Academic Freedom in European higher education systems: threats and opportunities’ edited by Giulio Marini, IoE UCL (g.marini@ucl.ac.uk) and Anatoly Oleksiyenko, University of Hong Kong (paoleks@hku.hk).
  • Hold a session at the project’s final conference in June 2021 highlighting the research, the development of alternatives and the dialogue with change makers.

Work plan

Download the work plan for the group Academic freedom’s ‘silent spring’ here


Amsler, Sarah 2017 ‘“Insane with courage”: free university experiments and the struggle for higher education in historical and contemporary perspective’ Learning and Teaching: The International Journal of Higher Education in the Social Sciences (LATISS). 10(1), 5-23.

Amsler, Sarah 2019 ‘Gesturing towards radical futurity in education for alternative futures’  Special Issue on the Politics of Making and Un-Making (Sustainable) Futures. Sustainability Science 14: 925–930.

Andersen, Heine 2019 Forskningsfrihed Copenhagen: Hans Reitzels Forlag.

Karran, Terence , Beiter, Klaus and  Appiagyei-Atua, Kwadwo 2017 ‘Measuring academic freedom in Europe: a criterion referenced approach’ Policy Reviews in Higher Education 1(2): 209-239.

Karran, Terence , Beiter, Klaus and  Appiagyei-Atua, Kwadwo 2016 ‘Yearning to Belong – Finding a “Home” for the Right to Academic Freedom in the U.N. Human Rights Covenants’, Intercultural Human Rights Law Review 11: 107-190.

Maassen, Peter; Gornitzka, Åse and Fumasoli, Tatiana 2017 ‘University reform and institutional autonomy: A framework for analysing the living autonomy’. Higher Education Quarterly 71(3): 239- 250.

Magna Charta Observatory 2018 ‘Living Values’ project http://www.magna-charta.org/activities-and-projects/living-values-project

Pasture, Patrick 2018 ‘The EU’s world view’ Paper given at the ‘Futuring Europe Symposium’, Hollands College, Leuven, Belgium. 28 November.

Rowlands and Wright 2019 ‘Hunting for Points. The effects of research assessment on research practice’ Studies in Higher Education https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2019.1706077

Scott, W. R. (1995). Institutions and Organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA, SAGE.

Smith, Lucy 2001 ‘The academic values’ in Carsten Bach-Nielsen (ed.) Dannelse, Uddannelse, Universiteter, Århus: Århus University Press.

Stølen, Svein  and  Gornitzka, Åse 2019 ‘In defence of universities as truth-seeking institutions’ University World News 26 October. https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=201910230941434

Thompsett, Fern 2017 ‘Pedagogies of resistance: Free universities and the radical re-imagination of studyLearning and Teaching: the International Journal of Higher Education in the Social Sciences (LATISS) 10(1): 24–41.

Wright, Susan 2014 ‘“Humboldt” Humbug! Contemporary mobilizations of “Humboldt” as a discourse to support the corporatization and marketization of universities and to disparage alternatives’ in Thomas Karlsohn, Peter Josephson and Johan Ostling (eds) The Humboldtian Tradition - Origins and Legacies Leiden: Brill. Pp. 143-163.

Wright, Susan, Greenwood, Davydd, Boden, Rebecca 2011 ‘Report on a field visit to Mondragón University: a cooperative experience/experiment’ Learning and Teaching: The International Journal of Higher Education in the Social Sciences (LATISS) 4(3): 38-56.