Academic Freedom and the World University Service

In honor of its centennial, the World University Service (WUS) held a “Global Conference on the Right to Quality Education” from September 21-23, at the University of Vienna. Participants were representatives on international organizations, governments, higher education and student associations, universities and research  institutes. CEU co-hosted the conference  and engaged with the other participants regarding efforts toward safeguarding academic freedom.

On the heels of the centennial convening, CEU spoke with CEU Provost Liviu Matei, Professor in the Department of Public Policy and Doctoral School of Political Science, Public Policy, and International Relations and Director of YECHE, which hosts the Global Observatory on Academic Freedom. This is an edited interview conducted on October 22, 2021.


With the WUS centenary conference recently in Vienna, what would you like to point out about the NGO?

This is an extraordinary organization with a remarkable history, which may not be well-known, but has made very important and unique contributions of efficient and well organized efforts to make solidarity work in higher education. The organization started at the end of the first World War with a mandate to help students who were then facing serious difficulties in Vienna during the post-war period.

It then developed into a more international citizen organization promoting the right to higher education, access to higher education and academic freedom. They often focus their work on particular geographies, institutions and parts of education systems that are experiencing difficulties and sometimes dramatic situations. For example, I first came to know the organization during my own work in former Yugoslavia after the end of the war. Today WUS remains very active in Kosovo.

Are there certain alignments you would highlight regarding the work of WUS on academic freedom and your objectives at the Global Observatory on Academic Freedom?

In fairness, we haven't done work together with WUS recently, but with CEU’s move to Vienna, it was at their invitation that we participated in this anniversary conference, and the invitation was indeed based on this alignment of some components of our institutional missions. WUS has historically been interested in the right to education and academic freedom as a human right. The Global Observatory on Academic Freedom is more focused on issues of policy and regulatory frameworks and how  to put them at use in defense of academic freedom.

Obviously these two things overlap and as part of the conference, for example, we had a very interesting and vigorous debate about a need to perhaps study, first of all, how academic freedom is understood in practice today, and also how it is conceptualized in formal settings, including regulatory frameworks, but also how to promote practically academic freedom.

Some of the participants remarked that there's a need for action, rather than study and reflection, in the first place. Of course we all agree. What CEU is trying to do with the work of the Global Observatory on Academic Freedom, which we established earlier this year, is regarding the understanding of academic freedom. We don't have, at present, a conceptual reference for academic freedom that is up-to-date, shared and really helpful in the promotion of academic freedom in current conditions. We need to think about it, discuss and put forward a new understanding.

I'm not talking about a formal definition or statement about its abstract nature, but rather that we need to reconstruct the notion of academic freedom in line with recent developments in Europe and in the world. The dominant understanding of academic freedom that we have today is still from the early 19th century in Europe. It has been very influential and productive, but times have changed dramatically, and it’s vital to have this debate.

At CEU we are not a think-tank advocating solely for thinking about academic freedom in the library and seminars amongst ourselves. We are engaged in designing and implementing action on the ground, and we think it's important to accompany these actions and what is planned for the immediate future with a new understanding and meaning of academic freedom in today's context. WUS is very much interested in this reflection.

Addressing academic freedom over time seems to require a great deal of adaptability as politics, regulations and regions shift over time. Is part of this work just ongoing ingenuity, or are there certain approaches or strategies that have stood the test of time?

Since the start of modern universities, the concept and practice of academic freedom have had historical anchors and they will remain. Additionally however, there are tectonic shifts in the ways that higher education institutions are organized as well as more recent regulations.

One example in Europe is that we have what is called the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) which includes 49 countries all together – not just the countries of the EU. This area is unique in the world because it's a regional, trans-national construction in higher education with real substance. We have commonly agreed upon principles and standards for quality assurance and accreditation in the EHEA, which are used by all of the countries. We have pedagogical models, and for example, we have the European model of the PhD, which is different from the United States and other parts of the world.

In quality assurance we have an inter-governmental EHEA-wide organization, which evaluates all national accreditation agencies. EHEA has significance in its transnational dimension. Traditional academic freedom concepts and regulations are not adapted for this new reality.

One key element that is currently missing is a common European reference for academic freedom as well as a European mechanism for monitoring academic freedom. To illustrate, for example, Norway has a beautiful system and legislation for protection of academic freedom, and it works. But when a Norwegian student goes on Erasmus to Hungary, that student cannot take courses in gender studies, because Hungarian universities are prevemted by the government from offering them.

What we advocate for at CEU is a European shared reference for academic freedom that holds in this transnational dimension as well. We have been active on this front, developing such a reference has been part of our work and there are some positive steps as Ministers of Education in the entire European Higher Education Area adopted a statement last year on academic freedom, which is largely the beginning of the European conceptual reference. A working group is now established to focus on a monitoring EHEA-wide mechanism. In this working group I represent Austria, not CEU.

Is there anything distinct you want to point out about WUS Austria?

I believe the Austrian entity is a real engine for the network historically. They have a reputation as a reference for the efforts on the democratization and development of higher education in this particular region. WUS Austria works with other chapters trying to address challenges in other regions. For example, we are in close contact now with Germany as part of our efforts to help students and academics in Afghanistan.

CEU recently hosted two events related to academic freedom – one was the university-wide seminar called “Epistemologies of Academic Freedom” and one focused on “The Role of Institutions in Safeguarding Academic Freedom”. What are some of the discussions surfacing that also impact the work of an organization like WUS?

The university-wide seminar was about the epistemology of academic freedom from a global comparative perspective. We had participants from Africa, for example, and it was a remarkable intellectual experience, I hope with practical consequences, since the event allowed us in the Global Observatory on Academic Freedom and others to better understand the issue of conceptualizing academic freedom from a non-European perspective.

The other seminar was organized and led by students. I believe the most important outcome was the appeal coming from student representatives to have an internal set of policies about academic freedom at CEU. We don't currently have something that specifically says what is meant by academic freedom, and it's not going to be easy, but it's perhaps time to initiate that work.

Some will say academic freedom involves the right to study and access to education. In that case financial aid is a part of the conversation. There will be others who will say that is not part of the scope. In any case, I thought it was extremely interesting and might be the start of a productive reflection internally at CEU.

Something else I learned from that seminar is that for many years academic freedom has been taken for granted in Europe. This we knew. What the Lex-CEU affair has shown is that we shouldn't take academic freedom for granted. In the sphere of politics and policy in Europe, I think this seminar showed us that we cannot take academic freedom for grante internally at CEU either.