Organisations representing the heads of universities in 10 European countries have signed a declaration in Vienna, Austria, warning against tendencies to restrict academic freedom and threats to democracy, and defining the role of higher education in society.
Representatives of rectors’ conferences from Germany, Italy, Croatia, Poland, Switzerland, Slovenia, Slovakia, Serbia and the Czech Republic met with Universities Austria or UNIKO, Austria’s association of university heads, in mid-December to take stock of growing trends in society towards ‘pseudo-science’ and ‘pseudo-facts’. Representatives from Hungary had also been invited but refrained from attending.
In their ‘Vienna Declaration’, the participants of the meeting state that they are “firmly convinced that the basic values of higher education reflect the achievements of enlightenment”. Academic freedom and integrity in teaching and research as well as students and academic staff having a say in the running of institutions are seen as key elements in the functioning of universities.
The rectors also stress the significance of the Magna Charta Universitatum, signed in 1988 by 388 university heads from across Europe and marking the 900th birthday of Italy’s University of Bologna. Here, they refer to the holistic concept of education emphasised in the Charta.
The Vienna Declaration emphasises higher education’s contribution to society in promoting intercultural understanding, equal access to education, active citizenship as well as ethical education and strengthening social responsibility.
However, the rectors also call on governments to support universities in performing these key roles by providing adequate resources and appropriate legal frameworks. And they appeal to them to prevent any attempts to undermine independent research and the development of the arts.
“At the same time, we express our concern over such movements that are evolving both in and beyond Europe and are threatening the democratic character of our institutions and our society,” the declaration reads.
The rectors warn that post-factual explanations are gaining ground, both in the shaping of public opinion and in political debates, and that social media have enabled them to assume new dimensions. They call on governments to “maintain a strong commitment to Europe and to protecting human rights and basic freedoms”.
“Given growing inequality, nationalism, populism, racism, anti-Semitism, intolerance, polarisation and radicalisation, as well as pseudo-science and pseudo-facts that are threatening democratic and academic culture, our concerns are more than justified,” said UNIKO President Eva Blimlinger in Vienna.
The rectors’ conference representatives attending the meeting pledged to maintain close contact and plan joint activities to promote public discourse over developments.
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