What is academic freedom?

Academic freedom must be protected! Robert Quinn, Executive Director of the Scholars at Risk Network, has written an essay on the importance of academic freedom to mark the fifth anniversary of the Philipp Schwartz Initiative in 2021.

Robert Quinn
Robert Quinn, Executive Director des Scholars at Risk Network
Saturn-ähnliches Dekortationsbild

Philipp Schwartz Initiative

Their home countries are blighted by war, their freedom of research is curtailed or they are persecuted: in many parts of the world, scientists and scholars are in danger. The Philipp Schwartz Initiative helps researchers who have fled their countries to find their feet at German universities and research institutions.


Dossier for press and media
Program website for applications
Scholars at Risk Network - Germany Section

Academic freedom is simple, complex, and essential. It must be protected.

Academic freedom is a guarantor of quality. It is the freedom to carry out research, teaching, and discourse. It is the pursuit of truth, without regard for ideology, identity, or authority, bounded only by standards of professional and social responsibility.1 It is enjoyed by scholars and students. It is not limited to the laboratory or classroom but includes dialogue with society. It is a right, recognised in the international human rights regime, grounded in freedom of expression,2 the right to education,3 and the right to benefits of scientific progress.4 States therefore have legal obligations to protect and promote academic freedom.

The agency to determine what conduct or expression is protected by academic freedom lies within the academic sector.
Robert Quinn, Executive Director of Scholars at Risk

The essence of academic freedom is not in dispute, even when violated. It includes intramural expression (within the academic sector) and extramural expression (with audiences outside the sector). But academic freedom does not extend to all expression, and therefore academic freedom is not the same as free speech. The agency to determine what conduct or expression is protected by academic freedom necessarily lies within the sector, according to the standards of the respective discipline. This agency is not unlimited, however, but bound by core values of institutional autonomy,5 professional and social responsibility, accountability for public funds, and equitable access. Actors outside the sector may interrogate academics’ adherence to these values, but must respect that academic freedom is broad and not to be narrowly implemented; that academic actors, including students, should never suffer violent consequences for exercising academic freedom; and that coercive restrictions on nonviolent conduct or expression alone are presumed invalid.

Academic freedom becomes complex only when authorities seek to impose limitations on the pursuit of truth. To protect their favoured position, authority, or ideology, state and nonstate actors alike – political, commercial, religious, cultural – deny the legitimacy of academic enquiry. They label academics enquiring outside of approved channels “enemies” of the state, faith, or community. They prosecute them under vague and overbroad laws, including defamation, sedition, and even anti-terror. They try to destroy them for being truth-seekers. They try to destroy truth itself.

Academic freedom is essential because it resists this truth-destroying tendency of authority. In the coming years, solutions to a great many global challenges must be found. It is essential that scholars and researchers are free to seek solutions; to pursue and share the truth in their research, teaching and discourse. Academic freedom is essential. It must be protected.


1 UNESCO, Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel, adopted by the General Conference at its twenty-ninth session, Paris, 21 October–12 November 1997, 11 November 1997, para. 27.
2 International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights, Art. 19.
3 International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, Art. 13.
4 International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, Art. 15.
5 Institutional autonomy, closely related, is the degree of self-governance necessaryto guarantee academic freedom. UNESCO, Rec. paras. 17–19.