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How can universities use the renewed attention to values to their advantage? A key step is to move from a negative discussion to a positive one. EUA’s Monika Steinel tells us how.

Institutional autonomy and academic freedom are widely – and rightly – seen as core values that underpin all university activities. Put simply, they are manifestations of the same principle at different levels: they encompass the freedoms needed by the institution itself and the individuals within it to do their jobs. As such, university autonomy and academic freedom are the single most important foundations for meaningful academic research and teaching whose aims, ultimately, are to advance knowledge and, thereby, society.

Research, such as the Autonomy Scorecard conducted by the European University Association, suggests that higher education institutions in Europe, by and large, enjoy greater independence from state interference today than they did twenty years ago. Many European countries have undergone reform processes through which their universities have gained a greater say over their own affairs, such as their internal organisation, academic issues, financial management and staffing policies. One of the most recent examples is the passing of a new law in July 2018 by the Sejm, the lower house of Poland’s parliament, which aims to de-regulate the higher education sector and bolster the autonomy of universities. The fact that this reform is the result of an extensive stakeholder consultation process is welcome.

While we have thus seen largely progressive changes in universities’ autonomy, the jury is still out on academic freedom. Liviu Matei and Julia Iwinska have recently argued that institutional autonomy and academic freedom have entered “divergent paths”, with the former taking a relatively steady upward trajectory and the latter developing more slowly or even regressing.

The most blatant violations of academic freedom, such as those suffered by Turkish universities and their communities especially since 2016, thankfully remain exceptions. Nevertheless, other, subtler threats are also at work elsewhere in Europe. These come in different guises, such as growing funding constraints, stringent accountability requirements or the stifling of unpopular or politically incorrect views on campuses.

Additional pressures abound. European universities are working hard to stay ahead of their global competitors – for students, funding and partnerships. At home, academic integrity is seen by many to be in crisis, as evidenced by a string of prominent plagiarism cases and other violations of accepted academic standards, such as inadequate data management or, worse, the outright fabrication of research results. Anti-intellectualism in general and scepticism of the scientific community in particular are on the rise and some parts of society appear to question whether universities serve the public interest.

These trends are leading to more or less intensive soul-searching in and beyond the sector. Many universities are now shining a spotlight on the role played by values in higher education and research and policy-makers, too, are contemplating the issue: for instance, the Paris Communiqué, adopted during the Bologna ministerial conference in May 2018, recognised that fundamental values have recently been challenged in some EHEA countries. At the EU level, the European Parliament in September 2018 voted to trigger a disciplinary procedure against Hungary for undermining democratic rules and values, due partly to grave concerns over the Orbán government’s perceived violations of academic freedom.

So, is it all doom and gloom? By no means. Without wanting to belittle the challenges facing the sector today, many of the pressures mentioned previously can be seen as manifestations of a notable and positive fact – that universities are no longer ivory towers but have established themselves as forces for good in our societies . In addition to fulfilling their traditional education and research missions, today’s universities engage and work with the communities around them, participate in key social and political debates and address the major societal challenges of the day. Of course, such commitment may come with increased exposure and – at times – criticism. Just as often, however, it is recognised and appreciated by the outside world. In short, what universities do matters.

And is there a way for the sector to use the renewed attention to values to its advantage? How can values be of value to Europe’s universities? A key step is to move from a negative discussion, which centres almost exclusively on infringements or violations, to a positive one, which uses the concept as a tool for institutions to define their character and purpose. Some values are universal and must be safeguarded at all costs. Academic freedom is the lifeblood of scientific enquiry. It is non-negotiable. And neither can universities function (properly) without adequate independence from the state. Similarly, scientific misconduct, in whatever form, must be addressed. It is detrimental to the quality of research and undermines its credibility, leading to a loss of public trust that is highly damaging and ultimately unsustainable.

Beyond these academic core values, however, it is up to each institution to define and communicate the values it stands for and works towards. For some, this may mean nurturing a culture of openness and promoting diversity, perhaps through efforts to integrate refugees or other underserved groups as staff and students into their communities. Others may set great store by addressing the fundamental societal challenges of the day, for instance by orienting their work towards the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Still others may feel particularly strongly about contributing to the social and economic development of the community in which they are located, particularly if the latter is deprived.

Naturally, there are many more values that universities may choose and have chosen to operationalise. A useful reflection on values – one that involves all implicated groups within and outside the university, that takes a long-term perspective and that goes beyond a mere publicity exercise – should succeed in capturing the particular purpose and drive of an institution. Values are not about “what”, “how” or “when”, but about “why” decisions are taken and things are done, and this is a question every university should ask itself and, hopefully, be able to answer. 

This article was written as a contribution to the seminar “Institutional Autonomy, Academic Freedom and Imposture in the Academia – Do Academic Core Values Safeguard Against Corruption?”, which took place at the New Europe College (Bucharest, Romania) in May 2018.



Monika Steinel
European University Association

Monika Steinel is Deputy Secretary General of the European University Association.

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