Panelists Discuss the Intersection of Democracy, Academic Freedom and Institutional Autonomy

Education professionals, policy makers, students and academics examined the relationship between democracy and higher education in a panel discussion organized by CEU’s Yehuda Elkana Center for Higher Education and the Council of Europe on March 27.

The discussion focused on the roles academic freedom and institutional autonomy play in a democracy, frequently drawing on the Hungarian government’s ongoing threat to institutional autonomy at CEU and at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA).

“The mission of the university has to do with knowledge, fundamentally—the production of knowledge through research, the transmission of knowledge through education and the dissemination of knowledge outside the walls of the university,” said CEU Provost Liviu Matei, who co-moderated the panel. “Universities cannot fulfill this function well, or at all, unless they have academic freedom and university autonomy.”

Istvan Kenesei, Research Professor and Corresponding Member of the MTA, described the Hungarian government’s attempts to suppress institutional autonomy as “a huge tsunami” swallowing up universities and the MTA, which is still in the process of negotiating with the government around related issues. Mirroring the concerns of several participants, Kenesei also cautioned that the current governmental pressures placed on universities and the MTA are unlikely to be the last. 

President of CEU Student Union Fridon Lala provided a student perspective on that same idea, recalling a phrase used by CEU students since the law threatening CEU’s operation in Hungary was first introduced: “It started with CEU, but it won’t end with CEU.” Lala said that students protested and continue to protest, not just in support of CEU, but also for other Hungarian universities and institutions.

Sjur Bergan, panel co-moderator and head of the Education Department at the Council of Europe, noted that recent challenges to higher education required action. “What we thought could be taken for granted, we have seen cannot be taken for granted. We’re at an institution [CEU] that exemplifies this,” said Bergan. “Academic freedom and institutional autonomy need to be put back on the agenda because they’re important and because we Europeans need to develop a more nuanced view of what they mean in practice.”

Pavel Zgaga, director of the Centre for Educational Policy Studies at the University of Ljubljana, shared his perspective both as a politician in Slovenia during the post-socialist transition period in the early 1990s and as an academic. Zgaga explained that, during the political transition, “it was extremely important to reconceptualize autonomy and academic freedom” and to remind politicians that both were required for progress in science and higher education.

Expanding the conversation beyond the boundaries of Europe, Secretary General at the International Association of Universities Hilligje van’t Land cited growing threats to academic freedom throughout Latin America and Africa as well. She called for institutions to show the importance of autonomy and academic freedom to the outside world through their own actions: “We need to defend these values very strongly from the inside.”

Matei explored the questions of whether and how universities can fight for democracy, using CEU as an example of universities’ unique responsibilities and capabilities. “What we have learned in our case is that what universities can do is to reveal what is really happening in a society where there are anti-democratic trends, anti-democratic developments,” said Matei. He pointed towards other restrictions to freedom in Hungary, including those placed on the media and the judiciary, that met lukewarm reactions compared to the thousands-strong protests that filled the streets after CEU came under attack. “Something articulates around institutions of higher education, institutions of research that help to make clear to everybody—domestically and internationally—what is happening there. And perhaps this can mobilize resistance at the same time.”

The event was held amid meetings that gathered experts, including some of those speaking on the panel, who are developing a higher education guidance document for the Council of Europe’s Reference Framework of Competences for Democratic Culture.