On 14 February, Frédérique Vidal, French Minister for Higher Education, Research and Innovation, announced plans to order the French research agency (CNRS) to conduct an enquiry into French university research focused on colonialism and race. The aim, according to Vidal, is to identify those “wanting to fracture and divide” the country. More specifically, the probe is reportedly directed at the influence of "Islamo-leftism” on research. The aim, according to reports, is to distinguish “real” academic research from activism.
On 16 February, EUA member CPU (Conference des Présidents d’Universités) called for an “end to sterile polemics”, stressing that the concept of Islamo-leftism has no theoretical place in academic work. It has also offered to hold discussions on the crucial topic of academic freedom with Minister Vidal and all stakeholders involved.
EUA supports CPU’s statement and reiterates that universities are committed to both enforcing high ethical standards in research and ensuring that students in the course of their studies learn to think critically about challenging ideas. Polarisation of the political discourse and attacks on university research will not resolve cases of extremism. Furthermore, this action risks restricting free speech, highlighted as an essential component in healthy democratic societies by the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. Presented in September 2020, the UN report also affirms the responsibility of states and governments to protect academic freedom.
Various frameworks already exist to reinforce academic freedom for all researchers in universities. In particular, the Magna Charta Universitatum, a declaration signed by more than 1 000 universities across Europe and beyond, defines that universities are “autonomous institutions at the heart of societies (…) which must be morally and intellectually independent of all political authority and economic power.”
In 2020, the Bonn Declaration on Freedom of Scientific Research called for an increase in public trust in science, as well as protecting research from political intervention. In addition, the 49 higher education ministers of the European Higher Education Area, in the Bologna Process Communiqué, recognised the current threats to “the freedom of academic staff and students to engage in research, teaching, learning and communication, in and with society without interference or fear of reprisal” - whatever the political opinion of academics.
In this context, EUA stands by its member, CPU, in its offer to foster an informed debate. The Association continues to support its members and work with its partners to promote academic freedom and institutional autonomy at all levels.