⛓️ Political science at risk: challenges to academic freedom

Scholars have the essential right to pursue knowledge, to engage in critical thinking, and to challenge dominant ideas and practices. Yet, in countries around the world, academic freedom is under threat. Daniela Irrera argues that to protect academic freedom, we must renew efforts to identify what threatens it – and resist the challenges it faces

Academic freedom is under threat all over the world, affecting scholars across all disciplinary fields. In Afghanistan, the Taliban has banned education for women. In Iran, there are attacks on female university students. These are stark reminders of how easily authoritarian regimes can target education and academic freedom to enforce their ideological agendas.

In the field of political science and international relations, academic freedom is especially important. Our field of study deals with sensitive and contested issues including religion, politics, and ethnicity. Scholars may face harassment, intimidation, or even physical harm for expressing their views or pursuing their research in these areas.

Organisations such as Scholars at Risk are essential in protecting the academic freedom of scholars around the world. Such organisations provide support to individuals, and collect data on attacks on academic freedom. They also raise awareness of the importance of academic freedom in wider public discourse.

The academic community must prioritise the importance of academic freedom and the need to protect it. We must promote academic freedom in university policies and practices, and develop codes of conduct to safeguard it. We need to foster a culture of openness, and dialogue that recognises academic freedom as a right.

The threat to academic freedom

The Academic Freedom Index’s 2023 report covers 179 countries. Worryingly, it reveals a substantial decline in academic freedom in almost all those countries. Academic freedom is stagnating in 152 countries, with 50% or more of the world population affected.

According to Scholars At Risk, in 2022, 391 attacks on higher education were reported. These include killings, violence, disappearances, imprisonment, loss of position, travel restrictions, and prosecution. Such attacks don't just harm individual scholars and students. They also undermine the fundamental values of academic freedom and free inquiry.

Number of violations to individuals' academic freedom in 2022, per region

Source: 2022 Annual Report, Scholars at Risk

Violations of academic freedom are not limited to specific regions, but are widespread, and include Europe and North America. While in some parts of the world, authoritarian regimes and religious radicalisation pose significant threats to academic freedom, violations in Europe and North America are often linked to broader social and political trends.

In recent years, there have been concerns about the erosion of academic freedom in the United States. Some scholars have faced attacks and censorship for expressing controversial views. In Europe, we have seen instances of government interference, as well as increasing pressure on universities to serve the interests of the state or private funders.

What exactly is at risk?

To understand why academic freedom is in danger even in democratic countries – where it should be most protected – we must reflect on definitions and perception. This is especially important since it is not only freedom of speech under threat. Also at risk are teaching, researching, writing, and activism.

In a broader sense, we can define academic freedom as the principle that scholars and teachers should have the freedom to pursue and express knowledge, ideas, and opinions without fear of censorship, retaliation, or repression.

Academic freedom is the principle that scholars and teachers should have the freedom to pursue and express knowledge, ideas, and opinions without fear of censorship, retaliation, or repression

It is a fundamental right that allows academic institutions to engage in open inquiry and critical thinking. It makes meaningful contributions to society through research, teaching, and public service. 

Although universal in principle, this definition can be nuanced in practice in different education systems. We can also adapt it to different political regimes and to distinct cultural, religious, and communal beliefs.

With freedom comes responsibility

However, academic freedom also comes with responsibilities. These include maintaining professional standards, respecting ethical principles, and avoiding harm to others. It is academic institutions' duty to respect and protect academic freedom, and to provide a safe, inclusive environment for all staff and students.

While scholars should be free to study, teach and research their preferred topic without fear of discrimination and retaliation, they should also be respectful of others’ opinions and positions

Faculty and students should be free to study, teach and research their preferred topic without fear of discrimination and retaliation. They should also be respectful of others’ opinions and positions. Researchers should be free to express their opinions while publishing, doing fieldwork, writing blog posts, or giving talks and speeches. Academic institutions – private and public – are expected to protect the academic freedom of their faculty and students, without interference. However, they are also responsible if discrimination or limitation of freedoms do occur.

For their part, scholarly societies and academic associations must raise awareness of this pressing issue. Such organisations should be wary of holding conferences and meetings in countries or institutions where academic freedom is threatened, and they must be conscious of the implications of participation in any other activities in such countries.

Why our understanding of the challenges remains limited

Addressing the challenges to academic freedom requires different actions, and the involvement of different actors. To promote efficient policies, measures and actions, we need a broader research agenda. Databases are essential tools for tracking and monitoring academic freedom violations, but they are not enough on their own. Our understanding of the complex social, political, and economic factors that undermine academic freedom remains rather weak.

Databases are essential tools for tracking and monitoring academic freedom violations, but they are not enough on their own

As political scientists, we should lead the way in addressing these shortcomings. In doing so, we should involve scholars from all disciplines engaged in teaching, research, writing, public speech, social impact, and public outreach.

A greater understanding of academic freedom and the challenges will necessarily focus on the influence of political regimes (in both illiberal and democratic contexts). But it should also help explain the difficulties that academic institutions encounter in guaranteeing gender equality, multiculturalism, political balance and minority representation.

Of all disciplines, political science and international relations should be in a position to produce policy prescriptions. We need these now, more urgently than ever.

First in a new Loop series looking at constraints ⛓️ on academic freedom in contexts worldwide

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Daniela Irrera
Daniela Irrera
Professor of Political Science and International Relations, Centre for High Defence Studies, Rome

Daniela currently serves as a member of the ECPR Executive Committee and Chairs its Working Group on Academic Freedom.

She is co-convenor of the BISA Foreign Policy Working Group.

She is also review editor of the Journal of Contemporary European Studies.

Daniela has been a visiting scholar at several universities and research centres in Europe, the US and Asia.

She has been awarded a DAAD Fellowship at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt, a research grant at the European Union Center of Excellence, University of Alberta, Canada, and a Marie Curie Fellowship at the Universidade Federal de Santa Caterina, Florianopolis, Brazil.

Daniela has published extensively in International Relations and EU politics.

Her research is focused on non-state actors’ influence on global politics, both positive (civil society organisations and NGOs) and negative (organised crime and terrorism).

With Marianna Charountaki, she was recently appointed co-editor of the Springer series Non-state Actors in International Relations.

She is the author of EU Emergency Response Policies and NGOs: Trends and Innovations
Palgrave, 2018

EU Emergency Response Policies and NGOs by Daniela Irrera

She tweets @Daniela_1975

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