Report: Latest Academic Freedom Index Sees Global Declines

Academic freedom has seen a general decline across world regions and regime types, challenging scholars to express their ideas and findings freely. This is the key takeaway from the latest update of the Fredrich-Alexander-Universität Institute for Political Science‘s Academic Freedom Index.

The AFI is a tool used to assess the de facto status of academic freedom across various countries and territories worldwide. The fourth version of the index, released last month, includes data for 179 countries and territories, up from the 175 in the previous edition.

Cover of the 2023 Academic Freedom Index showing disembodied scholars pointing at world map
Read or download the report here

The new report found 4 billion people, over 50 percent of the world’s population, face reduced academic freedom in 2022. The index also determined 22 countries and territories offer fewer academic freedoms than they did a decade ago. In 152 other countries, academic freedom has stagnated at a low level.

Academic freedom has only improved in five countries, which together represent 0.7 percent of the world’s population: The Gambia, Uzbekistan, Seychelles, Montenegro and Kazakhstan. On the other hand, countries with large populations like China, India, the United States and Mexico have backslid. While the country’s political settings vary, all have experienced declines in academic freedom, with the changes in India and China alone impacting 2.8 billion people.

The report found declines seem to be occurring worldwide in various political contexts. For instance, reduced academic freedom in Eastern Europe and Central Asia can be attributed to increasing autocracy, and in liberal democracies the United States of America and the United Kingdom, downturns also occur.

The report offered a deeper dive into the U.S. decline:

After a long period of relatively high academic freedom levels, four out of five indicators visibly declined in 2021 – the year after President Donald Trump, who repeatedly made statements highly critical of science and academia, was voted out of office. Although some federal actions detrimental to academic freedom were taken during his administration, educational matters in the USA are largely regulated by individual states, which have increasingly used their authority to interfere in academic affairs since 2021. At least nine states, all Republican-led, have adopted bills that ban the teaching of concepts related to “critical race theory” in higher education institutions. Several states are also targeting tenure in public universities, adding to the already precarious status of academic employment. Some states now also allow students to record class lectures without the professor’s consent. Furthermore, influential conservative groups are lobbying state legislatures to withdraw funding from scientific fields such as gender, minority studies, and environmental science, and various groups are maintaining public “watchlists” of professors perceived as radical leftists. Despite efforts to polarize and intimidate, AFI data on academics’ freedom of expression indicates that scholars in the USA remain able to publically voice their expertise, even on politically salient issues.

The updated index was informed by data collected from 1900 until December 2022, expertise from more than 2,000 scholars and standardized questionnaires. To measure a nation’s overall degree of academic freedom, the index considers several factors.

“The Academic Freedom Index rests on five key indicators: the freedom to research and teach; the freedom of academic exchange and dissemination; the institutional autonomy of universities; campus integrity; and the freedom of academic and cultural expression,” the report reads. “Through those five indicators, the AFI captures elements of academic freedom that are a) comparable across different university systems across the world and b) specific to the academic sector.”

To generate the index, the V-Dem Institute uses a Bayesian measurement model that turns data from experts into indicators and index values. Version 13 of the measurement model, which was used to create the newest index, included increased historical coverage for 16 countries, added more contributing coders and revised the dataset on constitutional guarantees of academic freedom.

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Emma Richards

Emma Richards is a student at the University of Florida studying public relations. She is the social science communications intern at Sage Publishing.

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