Universities engaging with society in turbulent times – that, at least was the title of a conference of the Magna Charta Observatory, held last September in Bologna.
The Observatory is the custodian of the Magna Charta Universitatum (MCU), a document that sets out principles of academic freedom, institutional intellectual and moral autonomy, and responsibility towards society.
The Magna Charta, which dates back to 1988, is a unifying statement of the fundamental values of universities, of what they do, and what they are for. An updated version of the Magna Charta published in 2020 recognises the international global applicability of this message, enshrining the interconnected nature of the challenges that impact on universities.
Protecting academic freedom and institutional autonomy, and the need for universities to understand their responsibilities towards society, are as important as ever. So is demonstrating all of this to external stakeholders.
As an expression of their commitment to these values, universities can apply to sign the Magna Charta. It already has over 950 signatories worldwide, including nearly 50 from the United Kingdom. Applying is a straightforward process, requiring the completion of a self-assessment form supported by your university’s senate/academic board and its governing body as well as statements from partner universities.
This exercise provides opportunity to review your institution’s position in relation to the fundamental values of the Charta, asking questions about how much freedom members of academic staff have in determining what research and teaching is undertaken, the structures for ensuring respect of academic freedom, how much institutional autonomy your institution has for appointing staff and admitting students, and how academic integrity is maintained.
Completing this exercise can be of value in clarifying and enhancing the understanding of colleagues and students about your position on these matters. It also has the capacity to generate a feeling of pride for the manner in which academic values are being upheld, and for becoming a member of a worldwide community of like-minded institutions.
The actions of governments
Academic freedom and integrity, and institutional autonomy, are the bedrock of our higher education system. As all of us who work in the sector are aware, academic freedom is a value that has come into sharper focus in conversations about the purpose and activity of universities stimulated by the actions of the present UK government.
The Conservative Party election manifesto from 2019 committed to strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities. A February 2021 White Paper required “all who work, teach and learn at universities to work together to assert the value of freedom of speech and academic freedom and, where it is under threat, ensure that it is protected.” At face value it was a sentiment that aligned well with the Magna Charta Observatory’s own mission. In June 2022, the government’s Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill was swiftly followed by a ministerial letter to UK universities which affirmed the autonomy of universities in one breath, only in the next to challenge those that had taken autonomous decisions to join external assurance schemes such as the Race Equality Charter.
A further challenge to the autonomy of universities in exercising academic freedom to determining their own educational mission free from interference – seemingly at odds with the terms of the bill – came when the higher education minister of the day grandly promised to slim down the number of university courses, quoting a fictitious, headline-grabbing example of a degree in “Harry Potter studies” (although Durham University used to offer a Harry Potter module).
With the bill now on the statute book, we have the promise of several implications that will lead to signatories of the MCU needing to reflect on their legal duties to protect academic freedom. Guidance on this matter from the Office for Students, is expected to appear in the coming months. The regulator’s own stance on institutional autonomy has very recently come under the microscope, following the publication of a critical report from the House of Lords Industry and Regulators Committee bearing the title “Must do better”. In the report, the Office for Students stands accused of appearing not to have prioritised its duties to protect the institutional autonomy of higher education providers in the UK.
A global observatory
Monitoring the status of academic freedom and institutional autonomy across the globe is one of the functions of the Magna Charta Observatory. In the last few years, the Observatory has publicly mounted a defence of the values that it upholds in support of member institutions facing challenging circumstances. The 2020 version of the Magna Charta states that:
Intellectual and moral autonomy is the hallmark of any university and a precondition for the fulfilment of its responsibilities to society. That independence needs to be recognised and protected by governments and society at large, and defended vigorously by institutions themselves.
Where independence of university leadership is not recognised by national governments the Observatory is committed to voicing its opinion. In 2022, it issued a public letter to Turkish authorities expressing opposition to the violation of university governance and autonomy at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul.
Then, in March the same year, in an act that raised questions about the intellectual and moral autonomy of universities in Russia, the Russian Union of Rectors voiced support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, declaring their enduring support for the state. In response to the invasion, the governing council of the Magna Charta Observatory issued a statement of solidarity with universities in Ukraine, urging other Magna Charta signatories to offer assistance to staff and students from Ukraine universities.
In responding to the Russian Union of Rectors, the Observatory’s governing council decided to temporarily suspend the eligibility of nine Russian universities as signatories to the Magna Charta, judging their support for the Russian military action as incompatible with upholding the commitments they had made when signing. In speaking out, the Observatory demonstrates very clearly its own commitment to the values it promotes.
The Observatory has also developed resources, called the “Living Values Toolbox” to help all universities identify, define and live in accordance with their own values. By embedding values in their behaviours and conduct, and using them in their decision-making, a university can articulate its purpose and give expression to its approach to social responsibility.
In these turbulent times when political actors open up and aggravate difference and division, and the need for universities to demonstrate their purpose appears ever greater, the Magna Charta Universitatum transcends boundaries, offering a compelling affirmation and celebration of the shared bonds between higher education institutions and what they are good for.