In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section International Perspectives on Academic Freedom

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Social, Cultural, and Political Context
  • The State
  • Tenure
  • Measurement
  • Organizational Statements

Education International Perspectives on Academic Freedom
Joseph Hermanowicz
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0285


The beginnings of academic freedom are testimony to internationalism. European universities in the Middle Ages were self-governing to a degree, but the Church or the state controlled them for centuries. As modern science emerged in 17th-century England and as partaking in research and scholarship began to spread in the 18th and 19th centuries throughout Europe, an interest in the protection of free inquiry intensified. Students who pursued advanced education did so in Europe where many of them became professors, and where, consequently, the idea of Lehrfreiheit emerged: the right of the university professor to freedom of inquiry and teaching. Modern notions of academic freedom began to coalesce in the 19th century and on into the early and mid-20th century with the ascendancy of the research role performed by academics. Yet the point should not be lost that a broader interest in freedom of thought and teaching predates this process of formalization. Assertions of scholarly freedom in the 13th and 14th centuries at the University of Paris constitute a legacy of protections in the pursuit of knowledge, and the term scholastic freedom is traceable to Pope Honorius III in the 13th century. Owing to its span across time and cultural contexts, it is unsurprising that understandings of academic freedom have evolved and are thereby also susceptible to misunderstanding and misapplication. That there might be simply one way to construe academic freedom is a modern paradox. More accurately, academic freedom is nestled in a constellation of cultural, social, and political settings and traditions and histories. Academic freedom is often assumed to be a necessary condition for an authentic academic profession wherever professors are employed. In only a limited number of national systems, particularly the United States, academic freedom is strongly associated with tenure. But globally, most systems of higher education do not have tenure. This fact begs the question of how academic freedom, however construed, can exist in an absence of tenure protections. Answers to the question are again conditioned by histories and traditions, long or limited, that situate professors’ work in a relationship between the state and higher education. The reality that academic freedom is understood differently in different parts of world makes comparison difficult. This likely accounts for the relative paucity of explicitly empirical treatment of academic freedom in international comparative focus. In actuality it is challenging to offer a universal definition of “academic freedom.”

General Overviews

In Western Europe, academic freedom as an ideal is restricted to teaching and research within the university and is circumscribed by areas of expertise. The Western European tradition attempts to reflect the idea of Lehrfreiheit, the freedom to inquire and to teach, as well as that of Lehrnfreheit, the freedom to learn, which highlights the historic instrumental role that students played in the formation of this tradition. By comparison, the ideal expanded when it crossed the Atlantic, such that in the United States academic freedom applies to the classroom, the laboratory, and the public sphere. It is the last arena—civic life in public and, increasingly, on social media—that has proven the most nettlesome, as reflected in the review Spoehr 2019. Shils 1991 captures the idea of academic freedom as a normative construct. Hoye 1997 provides a scholarly discussion of the religious roots of academic freedom. Altbach 2016 discusses the difficulty in defining academic freedom in the context of its origins and evolution. Building on the work of others, Enders 2011 outlines four dimensions of how to conceptualize the academic profession. These dimensions also lend themselves to analyzing variation in academic freedom: discipline, or academic specialty; sectoral or institutional divides; an internal ranking system; and national differences. Tight 1988 offers a view of academic freedom by way of operative questions that consider its purposes, scope, and limits. Moshman 2017 emphasizes the professional parameters of academic freedom. Reflecting cross-national variation in understandings and applications of academic freedom, Karran 2009a seeks to establish a working definition of the principle for the European Union. The question of universality, at least across Europe, is explored further in Karran 2009b.

  • Altbach, Philip G. 2016. Academic freedom: International realities and challenges. In Global perspectives on higher education. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

    Considers evolving understandings of academic freedom, from its origins to the present.

  • Enders, Jürgen. 2011. The academic profession. In International handbook of higher education. 2 vols. Edited by Philip G. Altbach and James J. F. Forest, 5–21. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

    Summary of contemporary concerns and fissures in thinking about academic professions and their link to academic freedom.

  • Hoye, William J. 1997. The religious roots of academic freedom. Theological Studies 58:409–428.

    DOI: 10.1177/004056399705800301

    Argues that academic freedom derives from freedom of theological thought traced to the High Middle Ages.

  • Karran, Terrence. 2009a. Academic freedom in Europe: Time for a Magna Charta? Higher Education Policy 22:163–189.

    DOI: 10.1057/hep.2009.2

    Examines legal difficulties in the US concept as well as constitutional notions in select countries of Europe that hamper arriving at a definition of academic freedom that the author argues could be a ratifiable basis of unification.

  • Karran, Terrence. 2009b. Academic freedom: In justification of a universal ideal. Studies in Higher Education 34.3: 263–283.

    DOI: 10.1080/03075070802597036

    Examines the justification for, and benefits of, academic freedom to academics, university studies, universities as organizations, and the world.

  • Moshman, David. 2017. Academic freedom as the freedom to do academic work. AAUP Journal of Academic Freedom 8:1–14.

    Considers applicability of academic freedom to types of academic activity, such as academic roles and contexts, and levels of education.

  • Shils, Edward. 1991. Academic freedom. In International higher education: An encyclopedia. Edited by Philip G. Altbach, 1–22. New York: Garland.

    A classic statement that articulates a conception of what academic freedom is and, by the same token, what it is not.

  • Spoehr, Luther. 2019. Academic freedom and tenure in the United States. In Oxford Bibliographies in Education. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A bibliographic source of works on academic freedom as well as tenure as situated in the United States.

  • Tight, Malcolm, ed. 1988. So what is academic freedom? In Academic freedom and responsibility. Edited by Malcolm Tight, 114–132. Philadelphia: Open Univ. Press.

    Ten questions guide a consideration of academic freedom: What are the values that underlie academic freedom? Who gets academic freedom? What is the relationship between academic freedom and institutional autonomy? What is the relationship between academic freedom and tenure? What are the threats to academic freedom? What responsibilities does academic freedom confer? What is academic freedom? Who gets academic freedom? What is the position of students? What is the relationship between academic freedom and general human rights?

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.