Linda Wedlin: “Academic freedom should be strengthened”
“Academic freedom should be strengthened through stronger institutional protections, for example through legislation. That would limit the possibility of political influence over what is researched and taught,” says Linda Wedlin, Professor of Business Administration.
She leads the research programme Democracy and Higher Education at Uppsala University, and has thought a lot about the importance of academic freedom.
Ensuring that the knowledge built within the context of higher education is not steered too much by special interests – whether they are political, economic or other interests – is important for people to be able to trust this knowledge, and the decisions we make within the framework of our democracy, according to Wedlin.
Strict principles and practices
Linda Wedlin points out too that there are strict principles and practices in academia to ensure that the knowledge developed is both trustworthy and durable. This includes everything from scientific method and theories to the practices we have for debating and discussing.
“These principles apply to us as individual researchers and teachers as well as to the higher education institution per se. We have a responsibility to both live by and safeguard these principles. This is a responsibility that comes with academic freedom,” says Wedlin.
“We must be a place and an activity where trustworthy knowledge is created, shared and discussed freely, and can serve many different purposes in society.”
Academic freedom under pressure
Academic freedom is under pressure in many countries today because it is closely linked to freedom of expression and other democratic freedoms and rights. Direct attempts to limit these freedoms also mean direct threats to academic freedom, as we have seen in Hungary for example according to Wedlin.
“Here in Sweden, these threats are not concrete, such as the closure of higher education institutions or the prohibition of certain types of research, but there are nevertheless indirect threats. The practices and principles that have guided higher education’s freedoms for a long time have been altered by changing the forms of governance of higher education, increased bureaucracy, and by changing the economic conditions for research and education. It can be difficult to understand how separate, seemingly small, changes can threaten the foundations of academic freedom in the long term,” says Wedlin.
Balance and satisfying different requirements
Academia has probably never been completely free of demands or expectations from society and from various interests. Academic freedom needs to be balanced against and satisfy the various demands and expectations placed on research and higher education. What Linda Wedlin is seeking is a more nuanced discussion about what universities should actually do.
“This also requires a certain degree of freedom for academia to assess what is important and relevant on the basis of its own professional norms and principles, rather than on the basis of prevailing political opinions or economic interests.”
What can be done to strengthen academic freedom?
“Academic freedom should be strengthened through stronger institutional protections, for example through legislation that would make it more difficult to directly influence what is being researched and taught. I would also like to see a change in the governance model for higher education, a reduction in a lot of reporting requirements, follow-ups, evaluations and other governance requirements. And that the profession of academic and higher education institutions should also be given a greater degree of freedom in practice,” says Wedlin.
“But academia and higher education institutions then also need to show that they can take responsibility, and not start deciding things themselves that preferably the profession as whole should decide. Here we need to be part of the change ourselves, and also be able to show that we can make wise choices and set good priorities even without governance.”
A Week on Academic Freedom
"A Week on Academic Freedom" is a joint initiative by the research program Democracy and Higher Education, Higher Education and Research as Objects of Study, and Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study. A series of events will be organized on the common theme of academic freedom over the course of a week. All events take place in Uppsala between October 23–27.