By: Sophia Pedigo and Ela Angevine

Findings of the 2023 Academic Freedom Index (AFI), discussed at the German Embassy in Prague on Monday, indicate that over 50% of the world’s universities are experiencing a decline in academic freedom, according to political scientist Katrin Kinzelbach. 

Photo by: Sophia Pedigo

The discussion panel, including Charles University professor Jan Kuklik and Institute of Physics Czech Academy of Sciences Dr. Helena Reichlova, concluded that a world with limited academic freedoms—as measured by the AFI—is a limit on freedoms as a whole.

“Academic freedom is a universal right, but not universally protected. It needs your support,”  said Dr. Kinzelbach, AFI co-creator and professor at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg. 

Developed in 2017, AFI provides a global overview of academic freedom based on expert evaluation from 179 countries using V-Dem data collection. V-Dem, or the Varieties of Democracy project, uses social science research to analyze the idea of democracy as opposed to data collected from surveys, governments, arrests, events, or university policies.

It calculates and ranks each state in terms of the level of freedom to research and teach, freedom to exchange and disseminate information, institutional autonomy, and academic and cultural expression. The rankings are shared freely with the public and are open to criticism. 

“It is really important that we have autonomy. We don’t have to be diplomatic,” said Dr. Kinzelbach, speaking about the AFI in the wake of complaints received due to certain countries’ ratings.

Dr. Kinzelbach encouraged universities to insist on their institutional autonomy and governments to raise academic freedom as a topic in dialogue and the UN Universal Periodic Review. According to the UN Declaration of Human Rights, there is a “right to science.” If institutions do not have the ability to innovate freely, debate will not fuel change.

Photo by: Sophia Pedigo

“If this [academic] environment is restricted, that means society loses a space—an important space—for debate. And, of course, it also shapes the way the next generation can be educated and can be self-educated,” said Dr. Kinzelbach. 

The Czech Republic (0.98) and Germany (0.96) rank well, and both have gone through significant decreases and subsequent increases in the twentieth century because of events like communist rule and WWII, for example. These countries with high ratings often stagnate while others plummet, like the US (0.76), according to the AFI data.

“We ignore academic freedom, at our peril,” said AAU Professor David Vaughan, journalist and panel chair.