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Academic freedom

Here you will find definitions of academic freedom and an overview of legislation and international declarations that apply to different parts of the sector of research and education. You will find examples of how academic freedom may come under pressure and tools for protecting academic freedom in international knowledge cooperation.

Recently edited : 28. November 2023

What is academic freedom?

  • Research and teaching must be intellectually and morally independent of all political and economic interests.
  • Teaching and research should be inseparable, with students engaged in the search for knowledge and greater understanding.
  • The university shall be a site for free enquiry and debate, distinguished by its openness to dialogue and rejection of intolerance.

(Source: Magna Chartum Universitatum 2020)

Academic freedom is fundamental to the university institution. The Magna Charta Universitatum, signed by European university rectors on the occasion of the 900th anniversary of the University of Bologna in 1988, describes academic freedom and institutional autonomy as the foundation of the university as an institution. The charter marked the start of the Bologna Process, which Norway joined in 1999. The Rome Ministerial Communiqué, signed in 2020 by ministers responsible for higher education within the Bologna Process, also refers to the principles enshrined in the Magna Charta Universitatum. In the same year, Norway endorsed the Bonn Declaration on Freedom of Scientific Research, adopted at the Ministerial Conference on the European Research Area (ERA). In the Bonn Declaration, freedom of scientific research is, among other things, linked to

  • Freedom of expression
  • Freedom of association
  • The right to education
  • The right to physical mobility and virtual interaction
  • The right to freely define research questions, choose and develop theories, gather empirical material and employ sound academic research methods
  • The right to question accepted wisdom
  • The right to bring forward new ideas
  • The right to share, disseminate and publish research results

The Bonn Declaration emphasises that freedom of scientific research may be limited by other legislation and that research must take into account the rights of other persons or groups.

How is academic freedom challenged in international cooperation?

The report Academic freedom of expression. A good culture of free speech must be built from the bottom up, every single day (Official Norwegian Report (NOU) 2022: 2), refers to restrictions on academic freedom in several countries, including allied countries, and challenges arising from cooperation with authoritarian states. One of the key dilemmas pointed out by the Kierulf Committee is the fact that international cooperation can both protect and challenge academic freedom. It can protect individual researchers from other countries against interference by the authorities, but it can also mean that researchers and students from Norwegian institutions are subjected to pressure and restrictions from actors and authorities in other countries. It can be added here that researchers in some countries may find that international cooperation makes their relationship with their own authorities more challenging.

The NUPI study Challenging Knowledge Cooperation (in Norwegian only) refers to examples of how academic values and norms can come under pressure in international cooperation. It may be a matter of differences in research ethics principles between countries, partners with roles and ties that weaken confidence in their independence, or pressure to adapt statements and presentations of research findings and teaching activities. Examples given relate to issues of gender and sexuality, ethnic minorities, territorial borders and geographical definitions. Researchers and institutions have experienced that international colleagues are reluctant to participate in certain academic activities, such as courses and guest lectures, due to political restrictions in their home country.

Another concern among researchers is that an excessive focus on security can lead to discrimination and to suspicion being cast on employees and students, as well as imposing unnecessary restrictions on international cooperation. Openness, inclusion and cooperation are academic values that must be safeguarded, but that can also come under pressure from risk prevention measures. It is important to be aware of this.

Challenges and dilemmas related to academic values and norms in international cooperation projects are described in international reports and guidelines. Some countries have recruited many international students, and the institutions are financially dependent on them. This can put them in a vulnerable situation. The situation is different in Norway. Examples from other countries can nevertheless be useful as a starting point for reflection and discussion. Among other things, the report Managing Risks in Internationalisation: Security Related Issues (Universities UK, 2020), discusses difficult situations that may arise if international students (and visiting researchers) are under surveillance and possibly subject to laws in their home country that restrict their freedom even during stays abroad. Some institutions in the UK have put measures in place to protect such persons, for example by introducing the Chatham House Rule in seminars and allowing student assignments to be submitted anonymously. The report recommends making separate assessments for digital platforms where recording is possible. The Australian Government’s Department of Education has published cases involving academic freedom in international arenas of interaction.

The Kierulf committee also describes how academic freedom in close partner countries is under pressure in new and serious ways. However, the ability to perceive and handle pressure may vary depending on information about the country and the contextual understanding. It is also important to be aware that understandings of what academic freedom entails in practice may be politically and culturally conditioned.

What legal provisions apply to academic freedom in the Norwegian higher education sector?

Section 1-5 of the Act relating to Universities and University Colleges regulates academic freedom and responsibility at Norwegian universities and university colleges. The Act stipulates that the institutions must promote and safeguard academic freedom and ensure transparency regarding the results of research and development work. The rights include freedom to choose the topic of the research, method and the method of publication, and independent academic responsibility for the content of the teaching within the institutionally established framework. The obligations involve respecting the norms and ethics of science.

A draft for a new university and university colleges act is scheduled to be presented in 2023. The draft bill will, among other things, be based on the Aune Committee's report Ny lov om universiteter og høyskoler (NOU 2020: 3 ('New Act relating to universities and university colleges' – in Norwegian only). The Committee points out that questions of academic freedom may arise in connection with cooperation in education and research. It refers to commissioned research, but also international cooperation projects. The Committee emphasises that the requirement to promote and safeguard academic freedom applies 'also when cooperating with others, both authorities and private actors at home and abroad' (p. 135).

What legal provisions apply to academic freedom in the Norwegian institute sector?

The institute sector and the business sector are not covered by the Act relating to Universities and University Colleges. Academic freedom in these sectors is somewhat more limited through the employer's and client's managerial prerogative. Here, it is primarily the Act on the Organisation of Research Ethics (Research Ethics Act) (in Norwegian only) that regulates the framework for research activity, including a duty to comply with recognised research ethics norms. The guidelines for basic funding of research institutes also state that the institutes must ensure that the principle of academic freedom applies to all publicly funded research.

What are the limitations of academic freedom?

Academic freedom enjoys strong legal protection in Norway, but it is not absolute. Legally, it may be limited by, for example, the Health Research Act, the Biotechnology Act, the Research Ethics Act, the Government Employees Act (in Norwegian only), the Equality and Anti-Discrimination Act, the Working Environment Act and the Export Control Act.

Proposed assessments and procedures for the institutions' management and administration

  • Has the institution, through dedicated strategies, plans and regulations, undertaken to safeguard and promote academic freedom?
  • Does the institution take responsibility for building knowledge and awareness of academic freedom among its staff, students and visitors, for example in the form of courses/seminars?
  • Does the institution have systems in place for detecting violations of and threats to academic freedom, and procedures for dealing with such things?
  • When entering into international cooperation agreements (see also the separate page on cooperation agreements):
  • Is there a risk that any of the sources of funding can lead to unfortunate ties?
  • Is there a risk that non-academic actors in other countries will have an influence on research and teaching that exceeds what is desirable or acceptable?
  • Consider clarifying in the text of the agreement what the parties mean by academic freedom in the specific cooperation project.
  • Consider clarifying the framework conditions for academic freedom in the text of the agreement.
  • Does the institution have procedures for when and how cooperation is terminated if violations of academic freedom and other key values are identified?

Proposed assessments and procedures for the academic environments

  • Discuss with partners what academic freedom means in the specific project.
  • Do you have sufficient knowledge of the framework conditions for academic freedom in the partners' home country?
  • Could restrictions on academic freedom on the part of the partner have an impact on the cooperation?
  • Should the framework conditions for academic freedom be set out in the text of the agreement? Examples include provisions on the conditions for publication of findings. See also chapter 6 on agreements in the field of research and education.
  • Be aware that financial ties or other types of ties can affect academic freedom.
  • Ensure transparency about financial or other types of ties that can influence your research work.

Terms and definitions