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Academic freedom vs. other core higher education values

How does academic freedom relate to other core higher education values? In this article, explore the five core values and how they are related.

To understand academic freedom and how is supposed to protect people asking difficult or dangerous questions, it is important to have a general understanding of the meaning of five core values, and how they are related.

For the purpose of this course, the term “core higher education values” includes academic freedom, institutional autonomy, accountability, equitable access and social responsibility. Support for these five core values is drawn not only from the 1997 Recommendation, but from other UNESCO instruments,1 international human rights law,2 and related civil society statements.3

Defining the five “core higher education values”

Although core values are difficult to define precisely, each is generally recognized as:

ACADEMIC FREEDOM: as the “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.”4

INSTITUTIONAL AUTONOMY: the degree of self-governance necessary for effective decision-making by higher education institutions and leaders regarding their academic work, standards, management and related activities consistent with principles of equitable access, academic freedom, public accountability and social responsibility.

ACCOUNTABILITY: the institutionalization of clear and transparent systems, structures or mechanisms by which the state, higher education professionals, staff, students and the wider society may evaluate—with due respect for academic freedom and institutional autonomy— the quality and performance of higher education communities.

EQUITABLE ACCESS: entry to and successful participation in higher education and the higher education profession is based on merit and without discrimination on grounds of race, gender, language or religion, or economic, cultural or social distinctions or physical disabilities, and includes active facilitation of access for members of traditionally underrepresented groups, including indigenous peoples, cultural and linguistic minorities, economically or otherwise disadvantaged groups, and those with disabilities, whose participation may offer unique experience and talent that can be of great value to the higher education sector and society generally.

SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY: in higher education, this is the duty to use the freedoms and opportunities afforded by state and public respect for academic freedom and institutional autonomy in a manner consistent with the obligation to seek and impart truth, according to ethical and professional standards, and to respond to contemporary problems and needs of all members of society.

Do we need more precise definitions?

While the definitions above provide the general meaning of each core value, they are not perfectly precise definitions. Consensus on the general meaning is important for meaningful discussion and exploration of values-related concerns, but given the wide range of higher education systems, institutions and local conditions, perfectly precise definitions are not possible and not particularly desirable.

More important is an understanding of the interrelatedness of each value with the others. For example, how academic freedom and institutional autonomy overlap? How does social responsibility inform the exercise of academic freedom? This requires an honest discussion about the general meaning of each of the core values within a specific country, higher education institution or case example.

For example, rather than focus on a binary question (“Was the professor’s statement protected by academic freedom, yes or no?”), which risks oversimplification, better discussions may result from exploring the interrelatedness of the various values (“What is the impact of the professor’s statement, and the student, university or government’s response to that statement, on each of the core values?”).

What about other, related terms?

The five core values listed above are not an exhaustive list but rather a set of broad categories, each of which may implicate other values concerns. For example integrity in research, governance and management is essential to higher education and should be understood as included within the meaning of academic freedom, institutional autonomy and accountability, respectively. Similarly general anti-discrimination principles should be understood as included within the meaning of equitable access and social responsibility.


Although this course emphasizes academic freedom, you should consider all five core values in your comments and when evaluating the course videos, articles and exercises. Is one value more important than the others? Why? What do you think? Let us know in your comments.


1Relevant human rights provisions include especially the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Article 15 on the right to education) and related 1999 General Comment 13 of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR); the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 18 on freedom of “thought, conscience, and religion” and Article 19 on “the right to hold opinions without interference,” “freedom of expression,” and “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers”); and the related provisions of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (Articles 9 & 17), 1948 American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man (Articles 4 & 12), 1967 American Convention on Human Rights (Article 13), and the European Convention on Human Rights (Article 10 & Protocol Article 2).

2Relevant UNESCO instruments include especially the 1997 UNESCO Recommendation Concerning the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel, 1974 Recommendation on the Status of Scientific Researchers, and the 1960 Convention against Discrimination in Education. Similarly, in Europe the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe adopted a recommendation on the research mission of universities in 2000 and a recommendation on the responsibility of public authorities for academic freedom and institutional autonomy in 2012, while the Parliamentary Assembly adopted Recommendation 1762 (2006) on academic freedom and university autonomy.

3Relevant civil society statements include the 1982 Declaration on Rights and Duties Inherent in Academic Freedom, adopted by the International Association of University Professors and Lecturers (IAUPL) in Sienna, Italy; the 1988 Lima Declaration on Academic Freedom and Autonomy of Institutions of Higher Education, adopted by the World University Service (WUS); the 1988 Magna Charta Universitatum, adopted by the Standing Conference of Rectors, Presidents and Vice-Chancellors of the European Universities (CRE); the 1990 Dar es Salam Declaration on Academic Freedom and Social Responsibility of Academics, adopted by staff associations of higher education establishments in Tanzania in 1990; the 1990 Kampala Declaration on Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility, adopted at a symposium held for that purpose by members of the African intellectual community; and the 2004 Amman Declaration on Academic Freedom and the Independence of the Institutions of Higher Education and Scientific Research, adopted by the Conference of Academic Freedom in the Arab Universities. Building on these, the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA) has recently released guidance to states on the responsibility to protect core values, especially academic freedom and institutional autonomy, in the context of violent and coercive attacks on higher education. GCPEA, Guide to Implementing the Principles of State Responsibility to Protect Higher Education from Attack (2016). Recent statements recognizing the importance of core values in cross-border higher education include “Guidelines for an Institutional Code of Ethics in Higher Education,” jointly issued by the International Association of Universities and the Magna Charta Observatory (2012), and the “Hefei Statement on the Ten Characteristics of Contemporary Research Universities” (2013), jointly issued by the Association of American Universities, Group of Eight (Australia), League of European Research Universities and the Chinese 9 Universities, and later joined by the Russell Group, U15 Canada, AEARU (Association of East Asian Research Universities), RU11 Japan, and the Hong Kong 3.

4UNESCO 1997 Rec., para. 27 (citing UNESCO 1974 Rec.). The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR) has commented that “[m]embers of the academic community, individually or collectively, are free to pursue, develop and transmit knowledge and ideas, through research, teaching, study, discussion, documentation, production, creation or writing. Academic freedom includes the liberty of individuals to express freely opinions about the institution or system in which they work, to fulfill their functions without discrimination or fear of repression by the State or any other actor, to participate in professional or representative academic bodies, and to enjoy all the internationally recognized human rights applicable to other individuals in the same jurisdiction” (ESCR Committee, General Comment 13: The Right to Education, E/C.12/1999/10, 1999).

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