Research >> Freedom

2022-09-26 Academic Freedom: more relevant than ever! During the panel discussion of this year’s Graduate School Opening Days, international law expert Asli Ozcelik Olcay (University of Glasgow) and human rights activist Maureen Macoun (Amnesty International) will discuss academic freedom. They outline the first problem areas in an interview.

Research >> Freedom ©Jan-Bennet Voltmer/Leuphana
Research >> Freedom
Why is academic freedom important at all? Wouldn’t it be enough to give people a list of facts which they shall learn by heart and that’s it?
Maureen Macoun: If there was such a predetermined list, it would be pretty much unchangeable; scientific progress would then not be possible. Then people would always learn the same thing. Progress and change come from diversity - precisely because many different people have many different ideas and research interests. If you look at the past, for example, the church also very much limited scientific freedom, for example by preaching religious doctrines that findings were not allowed to contradict. Guaranteeing freedom enables all of us and also society to develop and change. That is why it is very important that the state enables freedom of science as an institution, where individuals can gain new knowledge according to their interests and abilities.
Asli Olcay: Academic freedom is important on different levels. It is obviously important for individual academics, because as individuals we have the right to freedom of speech and freedom of thought, so that as academics we should be able to exercise our rights. But it has a public dimension as well. Academics produce knowledge that benefits humanity and the world. It’s important for all of us as humans that academic freedom is protected, so that academics can produce this knowledge freely and advance sciences and humanities. And academic freedom is obviously important for students, but not only for them. There are many beneficaries of academic research – we can think about patients that benefit from medical research, of workers that benefit from research about their work conditions or of students in terms of freedom in relation to teaching and learning. That importance for students is closely connected to the right to education as well. So academic freedom is not only about the rights of academics, it is also about the right to science and the right to education of others.
What is the current state of academic freedom?
Asli Olcay: At the moment academic freedom is under attack accross the world – not only in Hungary, Turkey or Russia. It is under threat – also because of the rising nationalism, illiberalism which we see across the world. The website Scholars at Risk, a US-based network that protects academic freedom, has an academic freedom monitor. In the past year alone they recorded 238 attacks on academic freedom. The most recent attackts that they recoreded are from Greece, Bangladesh, Marocco and India. So it is truly and, unfortunately, a worldwide phenomenon. And attacks are not only in the form of the restriction of freedom of thought and speech: We see violence against academics, loss of jobs, travel restrictions, closure of universities – so there are wide-spread and different types of attacks.
Maureen Macoun: We see that in various countries scientific freedom is being restricted or curtailed, that the state practically wants to regain control over what is researched and taught and what are ideas that correspond to the state's understanding and do not contradict it. This is of course a threatening development for academic freedom. Overall, this often goes hand in hand with the violation of other human rights such as freedom of expression or freedom of the press. Human rights are indivisible and we often see violations in different areas. This also applies to Russia, Hungary and Turkey. We see that many young academics leave these countries in order to do research somewhere else. In Germany, on the other hand, I see the challenges more in access to science. It's not enough for the state not to interfere - the state should also provide certain basics and guarantee equal access for people. Id est the state must guarantee that access to research does not depend as much as before on the academic background of the parents and their financial resources.
What aspect of these attacks do you find most disturbing?
Asli Olcay: I think they are all equally worring. Maybe I would highlight two: When it comes to physical violence against academics – that’s a very grave form of attack on academics and unfortunately even this happens. The other one is the institutionalised attack, for example the closure of universites. We have seen this in Turkey and in the case of the Central European University, which had to relocate from Hungary. That is also quite fundamental, because it affects all the students at that university and it also creates a chilling effect on all the other universites. It creates an environment of intimidation and fear.
Maureen Macoun: There are definitely different levels of threats to freedom. In Germany, scientists do not face the death penalty. Scientists are also not imprisoned because of their work as scientists. That doesn't mean that freedom of science is perfect, but nevertheless we move within a relatively safe framework here, within which we can also engage. The situation is quite different in some countries. That doesn't mean that we can sit back and relax in Germany, but we should also see to it that we improve.
What can be done?
Maureen Macoun: It depends on the context in which you move. When I think of my own context, for example, especially as a woman and as a mother, it is important for me to create visibility. That means showing that different life paths and lifestyles are compatible with working as a scientist and also being a role model for others in order to perhaps lower these hurdles a little. Above all, young people should be encouraged to take up academic challenges and be given access to research. It would also help to sign the Amnesty petition to help the scientists in Iran who are currently facing execution. Amnesty decidedly stands up for threatened and imprisoned scientists. And internationally, it is important to establish and develop a strong civil society: one that respects and demands its rights, which also has a positive impact on academic freedom.
Asli Olcay: We all need to be more vocal about this issue. Universities, academcis, student unions, governments, and NGOs – we all need to be aware of how grave and wide-spread the attacks on academic freedom are. As an international lawyer, I can also highlight how international law can help to better protect academic freedom. There are various human rights mechanisms, for example within the United Nations or at regional levels, in international law. These can be used, perhaps more frequently and proactively, to protect academic freedom.
What advice would you give to new Master- and PhD-students?
Asli Olcay: Students, and young people in general, have been so active about certain issues like climate change or tackling racism. Their activism has been powerful in these areas, and it can be extended to  the protection of academic freedom as well. 
Thank you very much!


Maureen Macoun studied law with a focus on European and international law. She completed her legal traineeship and second state examination in Schleswig-Holstein. Since 2019, she has been working as a research assistant at Helmut Schmidt University in Hamburg, where she is doing her doctorate in international law on the role of women in peace processes.

Asli Ozcelik Olcay is a Lecturer in International Law at the School of Law in the University of Glasgow, where she co-directs the Erasmus Mundus Joint Master in International Law of Global Security, Peace and Development. She is on the Advisory Board of the Scottish Human Rights Defender Fellowship and a member of the Glasgow Human Rights Network.

Graduate School Kick-off

The Graduate School Opening Days are the joint kick-off event for Master's students and doctoral candidates. This year's overall topic from 30 September to 5 October is "Research >> Freedom". Here you can find more information about the panel discussion with international guests on October 4th, 2022.