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the first study to track the connection

There are more and more interest in the state of academic freedom around the world. A UNESCO document from 1997 defines it such as the right of scholars to teach, discuss, research, publish, express opinions on systems, and participate in academic bodies. Academic freedom is the cornerstone of education and knowledge.

Yet there is surprisingly little empirical research on the actual impact of academic freedom. Comparable measures have also been rare. It is only in 2020 that a global index of academic freedom was launched by the Varieties of Democracy database, V-Dem, in collaboration with the Network of researchers in danger.

In line with the UNESCO definition, the new index provides a comprehensive measure of academic freedom. It covers research, teaching and expression as well as academic autonomy and campus security. It reveals that while the average level of academic freedom is higher today than before the end of the Cold War, the decline over the past 10 years is remarkable. Academic freedom increased from 0.6 in 2009 to 0.43 in 2021 within a range of 0.00 to 1.00.

Advocacy groups have noted the deterioration of freedom of expression for academics and working conditions in Turkey, for example. This reflects tendencies in civil liberties and human rights. Decreases were observed in the regions with the greatest academic freedom – Europe and North America – and in the least free regions: the Middle East and North Africa. In Africa as a whole, the level has been relatively stable: 0.58 in 2009 and 0.57 in 2021.



Read more: Morocco’s war on free speech is costing its universities dearly


The positive effects of universities on local economies have been the subject of much research. Recent approaches have also looked at broader societal impacts. The most remarkable is the Times Higher Education Impact ranking assess universities against the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This shows a wide variety of rankings in different objectives. Universities high on SDG 4 – quality education – are not necessarily high on SDG 16 – peace, justice and strong institutions, which includes academic freedom.

My to research was on the discipline of political science in African universities and its role in political developments on the continent. As part of this project, I studied the impact of academic freedom in post-Cold War democratic transitions in Africa.

A study I published with Tunisian economist Hajer Kratou showed that academic freedom has a significant positive effect on democracy, when democracy is measured by indicators such as election quality and executive accountability.

However, the time factor is important. Countries with high levels of academic freedom before and at the time of their democratic transition showed high levels of democracy even 5, 10 and 15 years later. In contrast, the political situation was more likely to deteriorate in countries where academic freedom was restricted at the time of transition. The impact of academic freedom was greatest in low-income countries.

The link between academic freedom and democracy

Around the world, there is a strong correlation between academic freedom and other elements of democracy based on V-Dem data. But cause and effect are not so clear. The African experience makes the relationship clearer because simultaneously, and in a relatively short time, the whole continent moved from a one-party system to a multi-party system. Prior to 1990, only five African countries with universal suffrage had multi-party systems. In 1995, one-party or non-party constitutional systems were exceptions.

Multiparty electoral competition alone, of course, does not make a democracy. The sole purpose of elections may be to legitimize an authoritarian regime and they may be rigged. It is therefore the quality of the elections that counts.

The V-Dem clean election index measures the absence of registration fraud, systematic irregularities, government intimidation of the opposition, vote buying and electoral violence. This is a useful indication of the level of democracy in Africa.

To examine the role of previous levels of academic freedom for the quality of current elections, we built an econometric model. We then tested it through the V-Dem indices of academic freedom and clean elections. Data.

To our knowledge, this was the first attempt to empirically investigate the impact of academic freedom on democracy.

We found that lags of 5, 10, and 15 years of academic freedom statistically had a positive effect on election quality. For Sierra Leone, for example, the academic freedom index for 1980-2009 was 0.48 and the clean election index in 1990-2019 was 0.55. For Rwanda the same figures were 0.20 and 0.40, and for Benin 0.72 and 0.65.

Academic freedom enables education to have a democratizing effect. Our results show two things:

  • it takes time to consolidate democracy

  • to make politics inclusive, a country must produce its own knowledge and have its own intellectual capacity.

That is why attacks on academics in Africa are worrying for the continent’s prospects for sustainable democracy and political stability.

Mobility and international cooperation is a the strength of an independent African university. But the less attractive it is for African scholars to return or move around the continent, the more likely they are to leave. This will reduce the competence and competitiveness of African countries. Conversely, countries that support academic freedom and invest in education today can look forward to a bright future.