(Rome, 10 July 2019) “Education, including higher education, is responsible for advancing and disseminating knowledge and developing ethical and able citizens. Education is key to developing, maintaining, and sustaining a culture of democracy without which democratic laws, institutions, and elections cannot function in practice: education furthers and supports a set of attitudes and behaviours that seeks resolution of conflicts through dialogue and that sees diversities of background and opinion as a strength rather than as a threat.” This is the message that the participants in the Global Forum on Academic Freedom, Institutional Autonomy, and the Future of Democracy wanted to convey. 

This is the raison-d’être of the declaration on which they agreed at the end of this forum that was held at the Council of Europe headquarters in Strasbourg on 20-21 June 2019 and co-organized by the Council of Europe, the International Consortium for Higher Education, Civic Responsibility and Democracy, the Organization of American States, the Magna Charta Observatory, and the International Association of Universities.

UNIMED’s Director, Dr. Marcello Scalisi, participated in this forum dedicated to academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and the future of democracy. As the Mediterranean Universities Union, a network gathering 124 universities from 23 countries of the Mediterranean basin, UNIMED is in strategic place to help further this goal of upholding such values to secure democracy. Dr Scalisi insisted on the importance of higher education to foster mutual understanding, freedom, autonomy, democracy and diversity in the Mediterranean area. UNIMED, as he recalled, is working towards this aim through its numerous Erasmus+ projects, for example on higher education governance, curricula development, refugees and mobility, together with its different partnerships with institutional partners, universities associations and educational organisations. 

The participants of this forum, including UNIMED, made numerous requests for example on the members of the academic community and their organizations to demonstrate open mindedness and respect in their research, learning and teaching work; on the higher education institutions and their leaders to raise awareness, commit and protect academic freedom and institutional autonomy; and on higher education leaders and their organizations to maintain the conditions for such freedoms and rights to be respected.

The declaration calls on public authorities to “set the framework for academic freedom and institutional autonomy and continuously monitor the implementation of those fundamental rights, while encouraging the adoption of sustainable long-term strategies for higher education”, something on which UNIMED is committed through its higher education governance projects involving universities, public authorities and students. For example, UNIMED coordinates two related projects such as SAGESSE and ESAGOV, and is partner in others such as UniGov and INsPIRE.

The Council of Europe, the Organization of American States, and other international institutions and organizations were also called by the signatories to this declaration to “make academic freedom and institutional autonomy key elements of their work to further democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, through normative standards as well as policy”.

The Ministers of the European Higher Education Area will meet in Rome in June 2020. This will be an occasion, as the declaration recalls, to further deepens the commitment to academic freedom and institutional autonomy as well as to include in the Bologna Process Implementation Reports the information gathered on these values in order to disseminate and facilitate their access. The declaration also counts on this meeting to address violations of such rights at political level.

Overall, the message conveyed by the participants to the Global Forum and signatories of this declaration was the strengthening of the role of higher education in developing, maintaining, and sustaining democratic societies, by upholding academic freedom and institutional autonomy, cooperation between universities, their leaders and the public authorities.

The final declaration is accessible here

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