By Eli Vieira
The most recent edition of the Index of Academic Freedom (ILA), prepared by researchers from the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany and three other institutions, shows a stagnation of academic freedom in 152 of the 179 countries analyzed and a decline in 22 of them, including Brazil.
Only in five small countries was there an improvement.
Released this month, the report compares the most recent data, from 2022, with that of a decade earlier.
“Academic freedom is receding for more than half the world’s population,” the document comments.
On the global average, academic freedom has regressed to the levels of four decades ago, according to the study, and risks reaching the average world level of 1960 if the decline is not halted.
The analysis looks at indicators of freedom to research and teaches, academic exchange and dissemination, educational and cultural expression, institutional autonomy, and campus integrity.
The researchers considered statistically significant changes to determine whether there was an increase or decrease.
That is differences of a few percentage points between 2012 and 2022 that do not exceed the “margin of error” are considered stagnation.
The Seychelles archipelago in Africa had the most significant positive jump, rising to the top 20% academically free.
Also rising in the index were Montenegro, Gambia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan – which does not mean the score was high.
Uzbekistan, for example, which is a dictatorship with 34 million inhabitants, is among the 30% least free.
Besides Brazil, Uruguay, the United Kingdom, the United States, Mexico, El Salvador, Ukraine, India, Hungary, Russia, Hong Kong, Nicaragua, and China are among those with a significant drop.
The worst scores in the Americas are Cuba and Nicaragua, countries that live under socialist dictatorships. Both are among the 10% most censorial and authoritarian, and Venezuela is among the 20% worst.
The report, which detects a marked difference between democracies and autocracies, explains that India, for example, moved from a “relatively high” level of academic freedom in 2012 and had a drop “associated with a rapid acceleration” in autocratic tendencies.
This happened especially after the election of the Hindu nationalist government of Narendra Modi in 2014 and after “the collapse of electoral democracy in 2016, resulting in an electoral autocracy.”
China shows a variation of an already closed regime that has worsened – the period analyzed coincides with Xi Jinping’s tenure.
All Chinese universities bow to the ideology of the Communist Party, which has representatives on every campus.
The Communist dictatorship has also pulled down Hong Kong, with unprecedented levels of interference since the return of the United Kingdom.
In the United States, meanwhile, where local politics are more important than federal, “individual states increasingly interfere in academic affairs,” the document explains.
The report cites nine states under GOP rule that have passed laws banning the teaching of “critical race theory” in institutions of higher learning.
The “theory” preaches that blacks should have special treatment to correct historical injustices and that equal treatment would be racist.
The document also highlights Mexico, where academic freedom would be at risk because of the government’s “use of fiscal policy and appointment decisions to deepen control of universities,” especially since 2017.
One of the main culprits would be leftist president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, whose government has “undermined university autonomy” through “harsh austerity measures,” as well as prioritizing “national problems” in research.
López Obrador’s appointment of deans unilaterally has drawn protests from students. Mexican academia is also affected by the drug cartel war.
The index is calculated based on data from different sources, such as expert surveys, reports, and UNESCO statistics.
The data are aggregated into five indicators related to academic freedom: freedom to research and teach, freedom of academic exchange and dissemination, institutional autonomy, campus integrity, and freedom of educational and cultural expression.
Each indicator is expressed in a score from 0 to 1 (which can be converted into a percentage), and the total index is the average of the five.
HOW DOES BRAZIL FARE
Brazil is among the 40% most authoritarian in the latest ILA ranking.
The report does not detail the country but states that its database has “high academic standards and uses the best available model for aggregating expert assessments.”
Statistically, with the margin of error, Brazil does not differ in academic freedom, according to the index, from countries like Singapore, Kuwait, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, El Salvador, and Angola.
Brazil’s score on the index is highly variable, from 32.4% in 2015, under the Dilma Rousseff government, to 56.2% in 2019 under Jair Bolsonaro.
Since the data is not purely objective, the variation is not free from reflecting the bias of the experts who are part of the index’s source.
Among the contributors to the study are “experts from the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi),” for example.
A September 202[BK1] 0 text published by GPPi, authored by USP law professor Conrado Hübner, says that the constitutional rights of freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and freedom of teaching and learning, as well as university autonomy, would be “under attack” in Brazil.
Hübner also does research for the Center for the Analysis of Freedom and Authoritarianism (LAUT).
Microsoft’s new artificial intelligence tool Bing, for example, uses GPPi and LAUT as sources to claim that the country suffers from “political interference and censorship by the federal government and some state authorities,” “harassment and intimidation of academics and students by right-wing groups and Internet trolls, who often accuse them of being ‘communists’ or ‘ideologues,'” and funding cuts that “undermine institutional autonomy.
Therefore, the perception of academic freedom is sensitive to factors such as the amount of taxes allocated to academics and online criticism.
Academics’ idea of academic freedom, which includes free speech, varies from culture to culture.
In January, Hübner told journalist Glenn Greenwald on Twitter that the notion of free speech in this one is wrong because it comes from the U.S. Constitution, an “obsolete monument.”
Hübner also pointed out that the Brazilian Constitution is 200 years younger than the American one, implying this would be a virtue.
Greenwald replied that this is not an American notion but an Enlightenment one.
HOW WAS IT DURING THE LAST 60 YEARS
The Academic Freedom Index also offers a long-term comparison from 1960. In that period, especially in the 1990s, the world has gone from an index of less than 50% freedom to a score above that.
But when the countries’ population size weights the scores, the rise until around 2010 is followed by a decline that threatens to reach the same level as in 1960.
Europe and North America enjoy high index levels, above 75%, for the entire historical period, and the Middle East and North Africa remain around 25%.
“For the average global citizen, academic freedom is back to a level recorded four decades ago,” the report concludes.