Why should we care about academic freedom? Meet Central European University, a higher education institution that relocated to another country

Earlier this month, the European Court of Justice decided that the Hungarian government breached the World Trade Organisation and European Union law on academia and the freedom to establish universities. After a long legal struggle with the Hungarian government, Central European University moved from Budapest to the nearby Vienna, the city that heartily welcomed it as a new home to diversity and interculturalism.

What is Central European University?

Central European University, or CEU, offers 50 US- and Austrian accredited degrees in 15 academic disciplines in its modern Viennese campus. With students coming from around 110 counties and academics from 50 countries, CEU is a truly international institution.

Currently, the university is still partially in Budapest, which brings some complications to those who remained. As we already know, crossing the borders during the pandemic is not an easy task to complete. Yet this is not only the complication of CEU, as currently the whole higher education sector is heavily affected by the COVID emergency. This made universities, and partially CEU, to move to online teaching, which requires no physical space.

The move of the university to Vienna happened during the pandemic, which evoked border closures—also between Hungary and Austria. This made the current academic year particularly difficult for the students from non-EU countries, who are not able to travel to Vienna due to travel restrictions. For a higher education institution that is based on the principle of open society, it is particularly hard to manage the COVID crisis, as it is currently very difficult to bring students and researchers from all over the world under one roof in the Viennese campus.

Overall, the combination of the move to Vienna and the COVID emergency did not stop CEU from continuing its research and teaching, however. These ongoing challenges have put CEU’s resilience to a test, and, so far, the university has managed to withstand it. That makes us wonder, is there any need to worry about the past events that forced the university to leave Hungary? Can any university withstand such events?

Weak definitions of “academic freedom” can lead to the irreversible consequences

A weak definition can lead to the misuse of a term or even its abuse, as we have seen with “academic freedom” and CEU. The term “academic freedom” can bear a broad range of meanings, which can include a variety of interpretations, from academic autonomy to freedom of research.

There have been several attempts to conceptualize the notion of academic freedom. One of those is provided by the UNESCO (1997, Section 27):

Freedom of teaching and discussion, freedom in carrying out research and disseminating and publishing the results thereof, freedom to express freely opinions about the academic institution or system in which one works, freedom from institutional censorship and freedom to participate in professional or representative academic bodies.

This recommendation originates from 1997, but being a UNESCO member state does not automatically have to comply with it. In the case of CEU, the Hungarian government did not.

When the universities lose their freedom, democracy is in danger

Following the libertarian paradigm, academic and political freedom are the terms of mutual interdependence. The idea of academic freedom is closely related to the freedom of speech, which is one of the basic human rights. Without the variable of academic freedom, it is hard to imagine political liberty. But how can a country enjoy democracy without freedom of academia?

In case of CEU, legal decision/framework of the European Union could have prevented the efforts of the Hungarian government. There are already numerous examples of countries embedding the protection of academic freedom to their constitutions (Austria, Croatia, Switzerland, Denmark, etc.), but these countries are still in the minority. A comprehensive, EU-wide law could grant the future of research and innovation that higher education sector brings to the society, so it is a high time for policy makers to protect this fundamental right.

Maryna Lakhno is a doctoral research fellow in the Yehuda Elkana Center for Higher Education at the Central European University in Vienna. The preliminary title for her dissertation is ‘Universities: Local Agents of Global Changes. The SDGs as a Policy Framework for Higher Education.’ By scrutinising the UN SDGs from both actional and ideational perspectives, she aims to contribute to higher education policy by pointing to the existence of a new and consequential, although unexpected, global policy framework.

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

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