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Far-reaching academic freedom enjoyed by just one fifth of the global population

Four people around a table.
Image: FAU/Kurt Fuchs

Academic Freedom Index 2020 published

Academic freedom is a universal right and fundamental for high-quality higher education, innovation and social progress. However, nearly 80 percent of the world’s population lives in countries where academic freedom is subject to restrictions. The Academic Freedom Index (AFi) for 2020 indicates that Germany is in a very good position compared to the rest of the world.

The index was jointly developed by researchers from FAU, the V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg and the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi), working in close cooperation with the Scholars at Risk Network, and has now been published for the second time.

Universities across the globe under fire

‘There are many self-commitments by states and institutions to uphold and safeguard academic freedom, yet the Academic Freedom Index demonstrates that universities are under pressure in many countries around the world,’ says Prof. Dr. Katrin Kinzelbach from the Institute of Political Science at FAU. ‘Of course, there are major differences between countries, but overall we found that only about 20 percent of the world’s population lives in countries where academic freedom is well protected. Germany is a world leader in this respect.’

‘The Academic Freedom Index 2020 covers 175 countries and territories worldwide, which is up from 144 countries in 2019. In a highly collaborative effort, scholars from around the world have assessed an important precondition for their own work: the freedom indispensable for scientific inquiry,’ explains Prof. Dr. Staffan I. Lindberg, Director of the V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg.

From 2019 to 2020, the largest declines in academic freedom levels were observed in Belarus, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, and Zambia.

To explain these developments, Ilyas Saliba from the GPPi in Berlin remarked that ‘in most of the countries where academic freedom dropped significantly in comparison to 2019, the deterioration can be traced to either novel regulations that limit the freedom to research, teach and publish, or to repressive political acts against pro-democracy movements with a strong base among students and faculty.’ Saliba also added that ‘digital forms of instruction facilitate surveillance and very likely incentivize self-censorship in repressive settings.’

Scholars’ freedom to express an opinion on political issues is most as risk. The global average for this indicator has been dropping steadily since 2013. ‘We believe this can be partly attributed to increasing political polarization in societies around the world,’ according to Janika Spannagel from the GPPi.

Furthermore, the data also shows clear deteriorations in campus integrity in individual countries. This indicator assesses the extent to which campuses are free from surveillance or security infringements. For example, between 2019 and 2020, campus integrity dropped sharply in Belarus and in Poland.

However, there are also positive developments, in the Gambia, for example. ‘The AFi indicator with the highest score for the Gambia is scholars’ freedom to collaborate and to disseminate their findings. This is a very encouraging development,’ said Janika Spannagel.

International effort

The AFi provides data on global academic freedom for the period between 1900 and 2020. The systematic collection of data is based on assessments from more than 2,000 country experts from across the globe as well as a statistical model developed by the V-Dem Institute in Gothenburg to deal with a large volume of data relating to democracy.

The AFi is compiled from five indicators, each measuring a different dimension of academic freedom:

  1. Freedom to research and teach
  2. Freedom of academic exchange and dissemination,
  3. Institutional autonomy
  4. Campus integrity
  5. Freedom of academic and cultural expression

Data, visualisation and use

The detailed data on which the AFi 2020 is based are available online and can also be accessed using online visualisation tools. The index can be used by researchers for further studies, or by heads of universities, research funding providers and political decision-makers to take an informed approach to university policy-making. In addition, it can also be used to develop risk management strategies or take daily operational decisions determining where further protective measures are necessary to prevent infringements.

Further information

Prof. Dr. Katrin Kinzelbach

Professorship for International Politics of Human Rights

Phone: +49 9131 85-23481 and -23274

katrin.kinzelbach@fau.de