Standing up for fundamental academic values

DAAD Professor Prof Dr Joybrato Mukherjee and Peter Greisler from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research with winners of the first Fundamental Academic Values Award in Berlin on 30 June 2023

The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) announced the winners of the first Fundamental Academic Values Award in November 2022. This year, the awards were presented during the meeting for scholarship holders held in Berlin from 30 June to 2 July. The winners were the researchers Janika Spannagel (Freie Universität Berlin), Dr Elizaveta Potapova (Public Policy and Management Institute, Lithuania), and Dr Milica Popović (Central European University, Austria). The award is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). 

The numbers do not bode well. For 4 billion people – 50% of the world’s population – academic freedom is in decline. This was a recurring theme in the introductory speeches when DAAD scholarship holders met in the Audimax hall of Technische Universität Berlin for discussions of fundamental academic values. The trend was identified by Friedrich Alexander University Erlangen Nuremberg and the University of Göteborg in their annual Academic Freedom Index. Researchers at the universities regularly evaluate data of 180 countries regarding the freedom of academia, science and research. While it is pleasing to see Germany ranked among the to places in the latest report, many other countries perform less well. 

Unfortunately, this negative trend is also apparent in some countries within the European Higher Education Area, as Peter Greisler, Head of the Higher Education Division of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, stressed in his speech on the Fundamental Values Awards. He argued that in this context, Germany needs to be aware of its role model function as an attractive partner and destination for creative minds in academia. “This also is a message to states where improvement is needed on compliance with academic freedom: creating fair and good conditions for teaching and research is worth the effort, as they form the basis for strong research and therefore for innovation and prosperity,” he said.

Two major strategy papers published in late November 2020 summarised what fundamental academic values mean for the European Research Area in particular, and how academic freedom plays a role in that. A communiqué issued by the Bologna Ministerial Conference in Rome identified several key issues: academic freedom and integrity, autonomy in higher education, participation for lecturers and students in the running of higher education institutions, and social responsibility by and for higher education. The Bonn Declaration on Freedom of Scientific Research, which was presented to the Ministerial Conference on the European Research Area, also addressed the issue, stating that academic freedom “encompasses the right to freely define research questions, choose and develop theories, gather empirical material and employ sound academic research methods, to question accepted wisdom and develop new ideas”.

However, it is still methodologically challenging to identify how these fundamental values manifest themselves within the academic contexts of certain countries. The Fundamental Values Awards recognise the valuable research focusing on academic freedom conducted by three young academics: Janika Spannagel (Freie Universität Berlin), Dr Elizaveta Potapova (Public Policy and Management Institute, Lithuania), and Dr Milica Popović (Central European University, Austria).


Janika Spannagel (Freie Universität Berlin, Germany)
Fundamental Values Award, 1st place

Janika Spannagel is a co-author of the Academic Freedom Index.

How do you measure academic freedom? One way would be to measure cases of repression qualitatively, recording dismissals or even the use of physical violence, for example. However, data of this kind should be treated with caution, as the number of cases reported depends strongly on factors such as media attention and personnel capacities to record relevant incidents. The German political scientist Janika Spannagel is addressing these challenges. In her chapter “The Perks and Hazards of Data Sources on Academic Freedom: An Inventory” in “Researching academic freedom – Guidelines and sample case studies” (ed. Kinzelbach, K., Erlangen: FAU University Press, p. 175-221), she evaluates the risks and benefits of potential data sources for assessing academic freedom. 

In addition to collecting active cases of repression, relevant data can be found in legal and regulatory structures and frameworks, anonymous complaints, qualitative surveys and expert assessments. According to Spannagel, each different type of information has its strengths and weaknesses. If you are aware of these, you can combine individual data sources in such a way that it yields findings which are useful and comparable in methodological terms. The best example is the Academic Freedom Index. Spannagel played a significant role in its development, and the Index has established itself as a convenient indicator of academic freedom. She says that in her analysis she is mainly thinking about the authors of case studies. “I want to put myself in a position where I can understand which data sources are worthwhile and which are not,” she says. Spannagel is a postdoctoral researcher at the Freie Universität Berlin where she studies the dissemination and adoption of norms of academic freedom.

Dr Elizaveta Potapova (Public Policy and Management Institute in Vilnius, Lithuania)
Fundamental Values Award, 2nd place

Dr Elizaveta Potapova studies academic freedom in Russia.

If you consider the erosion of fundamental academic values in a wider European context, you will probably quickly think of current warring Russia. The Russian political scientist Dr Elizaveta Potapova was analysing the working conditions of academics and researchers since before Russia began its war of aggression against Ukraine, analysing them to identify evidence of declining academic freedom. Her article “Speaking Up at Work: Narrative Analysis of Academic Freedom in Russia” identifies certain narratives which people working in academia employ to respond to certain external pressures. These fall into two main groups depending on whether the restrictions are perceived to be problematic if they affect an individual’s wider circle of colleagues or acquaintances, or if that perception only arises when restrictions affect an individual’s own actions. 

These perceptions arise from the ways in which academics define their professional identity with regard to students, colleagues, university managers and the state, and how academic freedom affects this dynamic context. Potapova’s research is based on numerous depth interviews. Amongst other things these allowed her to draw out delicate subtle nuances in how individuals deal with censorship which recur in countries where academics and researchers have long had to deal with restrictions. “Interestingly, what those on the outside might consider to be state-imposed censorship, is not perceived that way at all by those within the system,” Potapova explains. “Censorship is only feared when it takes place informally and follows rules to which you have not been able to adapt.”


Dr Milica Popović (Central European University in Vienna, Austria)
Fundamental Values Award, 3rd place

Milica Popović is proposing a new definition of academic freedom.

All too often, academic freedom continues to be seen as freedom from political or ideological constraints. However, there is often a financial dimension to the restrictions currently faced by academics and researchers, something which research has thus far failed to consider properly. Dr Milica Popović holds this view, exploring it and other aspects of academic freedom in her article “Changing Understandings of Academic Freedom in the World at a Time of Pandemic”. 

Milica Popović starts from the growing political relevance of the topic in strategy papers issued by the UN and the EU during the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, and attempts to redefine academic freedom for the 21st Century in a way that includes financial constraints. On one level, she examines higher education institutions themselves as institutions. “We’re going through a commercialisation of higher education,” she explains. “Because governments are less willing to invest in higher education, universities are increasingly reliant on private sources of funding. In unfavourable circumstances, the impact of this can include influencing the choice of possible research topics.” On another level, economic pressures naturally have an impact at the level of individuals. Popović explains that early career academics and researchers face increasingly uncertain circumstances.“ We can’t expect people who are completely reliant on project-related funding and have no security or employment to be right at the forefront of the battle for academic freedom.”

(Klaus Lüber, 13 June 2023)



Related Topics

DAAD - Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst - German Academic Exchange Service