Alongside the UK government, the EU is also moving to legislate to protect academic freedom.
The UK’s Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023 came into force May 2023. The Act allows individuals who think that universities have failed in their duty to take reasonably practical steps to secure their academic freedom to bring complaints to the Office for Students. Depending on its assessment of the complaint, the Office for Students may fine universities and issue recommendations. Universities which fail to implement the Office for Student’s recommendations regarding the protection of academic freedom may be taken to court. It will be possible to bring complaints against universities regarding academic freedom to the Office for Students from August 2023.
Meanwhile, in the EU, momentum has been growing for legislation to protect academic freedom. Academic freedom is protected under article 13 of the EU founding charter, which states that:
The arts and scientific research shall be free of constraint. Academic freedom shall be respected.
However, there is currently no formal EU legislation to protect academic freedom. An early move in the push to introduce legislation occurred with the Bonn declaration on Freedom of Scientific Research in October 2020. The declaration, signed by all 27 members states, affirmed a commitment to protecting academic freedom. It was followed in November 2022 with the creation of the European Parliament’s forum for academic freedom. The forum will produce an annual report on the state of academic freedom in the EU. Currently, the European Commission is considering whether to propose legislation aiming to “guarantee, protect and promote” academic freedom within the EU.
The actions of the British government and the EU mark a change in government attitudes towards academic freedom. In the past, the defence of academic freedom was left to a large degree in the hands of universities. This was good for university autonomy. The move to external intervention reflects a growing sense that threats to academic freedom now often stem from within academia. It remains to be seen whether the new trend of government intervention in the UK and beyond will effectively counter threats to academic freedom, wherever they originate.