Powerful voice for democracy and academic freedom


In terms of democracy, the importance of safeguarding academic freedom must not be underestimated, writes Tora Holmberg. Photo from the University Buildning in Uppsala.

In terms of democracy, the importance of safeguarding academic freedom must not be underestimated, writes Tora Holmberg. Photo from the University Buildning in Uppsala.

Today, academic freedom and democracy are under threat around the world, including nearby European countries. And Uppsala University has a key part to play. In the next few years, research on democracy will gain new depth. The University will also welcome researchers who are prevented, by threats or censorship, from doing research in their own home countries. So writes Tora Holmberg, Vice-rector at Uppsala University.

Tora Holmberg, Vice-rector for the Disciplinary
Domain of Humanities and Social Sciences at
Uppsala University. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

Uppsala University aims to provide education and engage in research for a better world, as stated in the key steering document Missions, Goals and Strategies. Our commitments bring obligations. But what can we, as a Swedish university, do to strengthen democracy in the world?

As a university, education and research are of course our biggest contribution to protecting democracy. With them, we can ensure that the public and decision makers are informed about democratic processes, human rights and the conditions for a peaceful society. In Sweden, Uppsala University leads the way in this research field, and in many parts of it we lead the world.

To progress even further, the University is investing several hundred million kronor over the next few years in developing research on democracy, and in the University’s critical national and global role. In the Democracy and Higher Education programme, which is unique of its kind, we are taking a major initiative to add depth to the existing research and develop new specialisations.

The need to bolster democracy is, unfortunately, becoming ever greater. In our own part of the world, in several European countries, we see increasing control of universities’ activities through, for example, legislative amendments and a tighter budget. In Russia, the sphere of action for those who are believed to be “foreign agents” is growing; receiving fellowships from such so-called “agents” may have a devastating impact on vulnerable individuals and their families.

In terms of democracy, the importance of safeguarding academic freedom must not be underestimated. An ability to take that responsibility seriously calls for constant discussion about the importance of keeping politics and higher education an arm's length apart. Freedom is not a matter of us being allowed to engage indiscriminately in whatever we choose, but about guaranteeing that the research done is free – unaffected by political currents and influence. Citizens should be able to count on research being independent.

Besides our new research programme (Democracy and Higher Education), we have other long-term investments. The Uppsala Forum for Democracy, Peace and Justice has been an important international arena for researchers and the general public for 23 years. Another hub of wide-ranging collaborations and cutting-edge research is the Centre for Higher Education and Research as a Study Object (HERO). Together, these investments form a coherent whole.

Is there anything else we can do as a university? Yes: within the organisation, we can boost awareness of opportunities and risks of international collaborations. We can safeguard what is sometimes called “responsible internationalisation”. This may involve signing agreements, arranging research stays abroad and receiving guest researchers – in particular, at-risk researchers – at the University.

Since 2014, Uppsala University has had an agreement with Scholars at Risk (SAR), which, through its 500 member universities, defends academic freedom worldwide. Researchers who are prevented by threats or censorship from conducting research in their own home countries can, through SAR, get time-limited academic sanctuary at a higher education institution outside their own home country and contribute to the receiving research environment. Recently, for example, intensive measures have been required for Afghan researchers; and the organisation is currently preparing to register the interest expressed by universities and pass on contact details to researchers from Ukraine.

SAR-Sweden, the Swedish section of Scholars at Risk, works very actively to disseminate information and hold seminars about democracy and academic freedom. The section also arranges funding to enable reception of at-risk researchers. There is a strong commitment among researchers and heads of department, and we welcomed our first SAR Fellow in 2019. This year, Uppsala University can use SAR Fellowships to fund three researchers. Earmarked funds may also be applied for through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Authority (Sida), Formas (a Swedish research council for sustainable development) and Riksbankens Jubileumsfond.

Uppsala University is in a strong international position. We must remain a strong voice and a champion for preserving and strengthening academic freedom and democratic development.               

Tora Holmberg, Vice-rector at Uppsala University andProfessor at the Department of Sociology