University Post
University of Copenhagen
Independent of management


Danish academic freedom looks ‘OK’ on a global ranking. But it is mistaken

Academic freedom — Denmark is ranked high in an international study of academic freedom. But two researchers are sceptical about the criteria that the study is based on. And they recommend that academic freedom is enshrined in the Danish constitution.

Denmark is ranked 32nd out of 179 countries in terms of academic freedom, according to a just released index, which also shows that academic freedom has been declining in Denmark in recent years.

But Denmark, in fact, should have a lower ranking on the index.

This is according to Asger Sørensen, who is an associate professor in the field of the philosophy of education at Aarhus University. He does research on academic freedom and the idea of the university.

»The study gives a favourable placing to Denmark together with countries that actually have a much higher degree of academic freedom.«

He calls it a »poor study«, because if you look deeper into the criteria that the index is measuring, the result is »strongly misleading.«

»The index gives a false impression, because it does not take into account the increased micromanagement of universities in Denmark, or to what degree there is freedom of teaching. This lets something that is currently deeply problematic in Denmark off the hook.«

And it may have consequences, according to Asger Sørensen.

»If, say, a ministry, or politicians, used the study as evidence that everything is just fine in Denmark, it would have a detrimental effect on researchers’ academic freedom,« he says.

Political interference, and a lack of teaching freedom

The index is based on data from the V-Dem Institute (Varieties of Democracy), an independent research institution that studies democracies, and their administration. It uses a wide range of democracy indicators that challenge, for example, university rankings, and that promote academic freedom.


Academic Freedom Index (AFI) ranks the degree of academic freedom globally on the basis of five criteria: Freedom to research and teach, freedom of academic exchange and dissemination, institutional autonomy, campus integrity, and freedom of academic and cultural expression.

The index is partly based on data from Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem), which is a global dataset with a wide range of democratic indicators. The factors have been assessed by more than 2,000 experts.


This applies, for example, to institutional autonomy.

And Asger Sørensen points to the fact that institutional autonomy actually increased in Denmark when the University Act was amended in 2003. Universities were here given greater degrees of freedom than they had before, and became self-governing institutions under the leadership of a board.

But this cannot be seen in the index. Quite the contrary, it appears that autonomy dropped slightly when the law was introduced.

This surprises Asger Sørensen, who reckons that this is an example of how the study fails.

»It should also show a decline in academic freedom when political micromanagement takes place. Over the past decade, politicians and ministries have managed universities via, for example, the study progress reform, the dimensioning [cuts, ed.] and forced relocation of study programmes. This is not reflected in the index.«

Associate professor in the philosophy of law Jakob v. H. Holtermann is an advocate of academic freedom. He also thinks that there is good reason to be »sceptical about the kind of image that the study presents.«

The ranking does take the freedom to conduct research and teach into account. But according to the two associate professors, it does not take into account what freedom of research and freedom of teaching actually mean within the Danish university environment, as the calculation subsumes the two different categories of freedom into one.

»Denmark is one of the countries in Europe where it is easiest to dismiss scientists from permanent positions. And if you do not have security of employment, you have a hard time being able to do research and teach freely,« says Asger Sørensen.

He explains that in Denmark, unlike countries like Norway and Sweden, you do not have tenure or security of employment when you as an employee at university reach a certain level in the academic hierarchy.

A new study by the Danish Council for Research and Innovation Policy (DFiR) has just concluded that
the freedom of research at Danish universities is under pressure. The study assessed Denmark’s universities in connection with the 2003 Danish University Act’s 20-year anniversary.

The panel that conducted this study did not explicitly take the freedom of teaching into account, however.

Jakob v. H. Holtermann has previously advocated for the protection of academics’ freedoms in the University Post, with written guidelines or principles.

»The trend in recent years has been a focus on the freedom of teaching as a separate part of academic freedom – in particular in connection with the general commercialisation of the universities and the associated ‘customer’ orientation towards students and the discussions about offending students during teaching. But these potential trends cannot be read out of the survey when you lump freedom of research and freedom of teaching together,« says Jakob v. H. Holtermann.

Should be in the constitution

The Academic Freedom Index illustrates that some of the countries with which Denmark normally compares itself, like Finland and Sweden, place themselves at the very top.

According to Asger Sørensen this is because Finland has ‘academic freedom’ enshrined in the country’s constitution.

»Finland has taken the threat from totalitarianism seriously. For this reason, Finland is one of the best examples of a country that recognizes that it may be necessary to have support in the legal system, and a culture that supports freedom of speech, in order to ensure the greatest possible academic freedom,« says Asger Sørensen.

Both associate professors believe that it is high time to introduce explicit legal protections of the freedom of teaching, and for academic freedom in general in Denmark.

»The University Act only protects freedom of research at present. And some have argued that freedom of teaching and other academic freedoms do not need legal protection, but should be taken care of locally [by the institutions themselves, ed.]. But it is quite difficult to see the logic behind this kind of limitation,« says Jakob v. H. Holtermann.

Danish primary and lower secondary schools recently decided to carry out a large-scale study of phenomena like fear and self-censorship among teachers, but also students.

Jakob v. H. Holtermann is now calling for a similar study into fear and self-censorship in teaching at Danish universities.