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The Academic Freedom Index provides a robust assessment of academic freedom levels worldwide that can inform and guide advocacy and policy efforts. Co-developers Janika Spannagel and Ilyas Saliba from the Global Public Policy Institute propose five concrete ways university administrations and civil society organisations can make use of the new data to strengthen academic freedom.

The vast majority of governments worldwide have pledged to “respect the freedom indispensable for scientific research” that is codified in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. However, based on the new Academic Freedom Index dataset, it is clear that 80% of the world population currently lives in a country that restricts academic freedom in practice. Therefore, the consistent and global monitoring of academic freedom is necessary to support universities, civil society actors and governments to defend this freedom more effectively. To do this, the Global Public Policy Institute joined researchers at the FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg, the V-Dem Institute, and the Scholars at Risk Network to create the Academic Freedom Index (AFi) in collaboration with experts around the world.

The AFi is a global dataset with assessments of five dimensions of academic freedom for 175 countries and territories. These five dimensions are the freedom to research and teach, the freedom of academic exchange and dissemination, institutional autonomy of higher education institutions, campus integrity (meaning the absence of surveillance and security infringements), and the freedom of academic and cultural expression. In addition to a snapshot analysis of current levels of academic freedom, the AFi also measures their evolution over time by offering retrospective data – for some countries going all the way back to 1900. More than 2,000 scholars from around the world have contributed to the AFi. On average, each data point in the index is based on assessments by ten individual country experts. Due to this strong empirical basis, the AFi represents a robust instrument to assess academic freedom in countries around the world.

How can the AFi inform and improve the promotion and protection of academic freedom in practice? We suggest five concrete ways in which university administrators, higher education groups and advocacy organisations can use the index data to strengthen academic freedom.

First, universities’ internal risk assessments of ongoing or new cooperations with foreign institutions can be informed by AFi country scores. Low academic freedom scores should not preclude cooperation but trigger enhanced scrutiny and agreement clauses that protect academic freedom as part of a given cooperation. Moreover, staff and students planning research or studies in countries with a restrictive academic freedom environment should have access to ethical and safety training and guidelines. To these ends, AFi scores can help university administrators to easily identify countries that substantially limit academic freedom and guide the adjustment of precautionary measures.

Second, student and scholar organisations can reference AFi data to engage in a debate with university administrations when they enter or renew institutional partnerships with entities in countries that show a track record of restricting academic freedom. AFi data can strengthen demands for transparency in the funding and governance of such partnerships, support a push for strong commitments and safeguards of academic freedom, and help press for the end of cooperations that undermine academic freedom or bear considerable risks to researchers or students at either of the partner institutions.

Third, university administrators, student and scholar groups, and higher education advocacy organisations can rely on the AFi to push back against university excellence rankings that do not account for academic freedom in their methodology. Specifically, they could lobby for an inclusion of AFi data in the rankings or for universities’ written commitment to academic freedom as a precondition for being assessed in a ranking.

Fourth, higher education advocacy groups can use the AFi and its composite indicators to confront governments with their own records and challenge them to meet their own international and domestic commitments. To this end, it could be particularly beneficial to compare a governments’ AFi scores to those of neighbouring countries that perform better, while stressing the benefits of strengthening academic freedom to attract talent and improve the quality of higher education.

Fifth, AFi data can underpin submissions by higher education unions or advocacy organisations to domestic, regional and international organisations or courts on matters of higher education standards and human rights compliance. While the dataset is not sufficient evidence on its own, it can illustrate and strengthen arguments about academic freedom issues and trends of concerns.

These five proposals exemplify how higher education stakeholders can utilise the data offered by the AFi to strengthen academic freedom in select avenues of action. In all of these endeavours, the quantitative data can and should be complemented by more in-depth qualitative information, for example using standardised country case studies. Equipped with this new dataset, stakeholders in higher education now have a powerful tool to push for the respect of academic freedom around the globe and to hold those violating it accountable.


The AFi is part of an extensive, award-winning social science dataset that is hosted by the V-Dem Institute and
freely accessible online. It relies on V-Dem’s proven methodology of aggregating assessments by multiple independent country experts into country-level scores using a Bayesian statistical model.


Janika Spannagel
Global Public Policy Institute

Janika Spannagel is a Research Fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin working on assessing and promoting academic freedom worldwide.

Ilyas Saliba
Global Public Policy Institute

Ilyas Saliba is a Research Fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin working on assessing and promoting academic freedom worldwide.

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