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New index challenges university rankings

March 26, 2020

A global research effort

'There is broad agreement on the importance of academic freedom, yet we have strikingly little knowledge about global or country-level trends,' says Prof. Kinzelbach, Professor for International Politics of Human Rights. 'This is why we decided to assess academic freedom worldwide and across time.'

The Academic Freedom Index (AFi) attempts to fill an important gap in knowledge and promote academic freedom as a fundamental principle of higher education and scientific research. Prof. Kinzelbach developed the project and a series of indicators in close coordination with the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin and with the Scholars at Risk Network in New York. The V-Dem Institute in Gothenburg managed the data collection. '1810 scholars from around the globe contributed to the new index by answering an expert survey, spanning the years 1900-2019,' explains Prof. Dr. Anna Lührmann, who is deputy director of the V-Dem Institute. 'We vetted and aggregated this data using our tested and award-winning statistical model.'

Indicators of academic freedom

AFi provides near global, time-series data on national levels of academic freedom. It includes five indicators, each measuring a different dimension of academic freedom: freedom to research and teach, freedom of academic exchange and dissemination, institutional autonomy, campus integrity, and freedom of academic and cultural expression. An online tool hosted by the V-Dem Institute provides easy access to the data. The tool allows researchers, policy-makers, advocates, students or others to analyse the various indicators, and compare trends across states and regions. The AFi opens up a wide variety of opportunities for research as well as for informing debates and enhancing decision-making by key stakeholders in both higher education and government.

'The new data not only helps us to examine where and why infringements of academic freedom occur, but also ways of strengthening academic freedom,' explains Prof. Kinzelbach. 'For example, we can show that countries where universities enjoy high institutional autonomy also tend to respect the freedom to research and teach. Further research into the data can open important doors for advocates of academic freedom around the world.'

Challenging university rankings

AFi is the result of a unique collaboration between scholars, an advocacy organisation and a think tank. 'Our aim is to modify incentive structures for universities and governments to make genuine respect for academic freedom a priority,' says Janika Spannagel from the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) in Berlin. 'By providing data on the state of academic freedom worldwide, we aim to bring a rights and freedoms perspective into international debates on the quality, reputation and governance of higher education.' This should also call into question existing university rankings, which purport to measure 'excellence', without adequately considering academic freedom. 'We hope that academics, students, university management, research funders, governments, and other higher education stakeholders will use the Academic Freedom Index to enhance monitoring systems, make better informed decisions, and to strengthen concrete safeguards for academic freedom,' adds her colleague Ilyas Saliba, also from GPPi. For example, funders and universities could require the submission of risk mitigation strategies with research and partnership proposals that foresee activities in repressive settings.

Robert Quinn, Executive Director of the Scholars at Risk Network, agrees that the AFi data demands international attention and calls for better safeguards. 'We need an Academic Freedom Index to understand trends over time and we must act on the findings. For too long now, governments and universities have lacked the data to measure and promote academic freedom,' says Quinn. 'I am extremely pleased that we now have a global dataset, which was produced by academics themselves in a collaborative, international effort,' says Quinn. 'We must now use it to defend historical advances, push back against contemporary pressures on free academia, and nurture higher education values. The Academic Freedom Index will help us to do so.'

The index and all disaggregated indicators will be updated annually.

Full global coverage will be reached by spring 2021.
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University of Erlangen-Nuremberg

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