Rector at the University of Bergen, Dag Rune Olsen, is hosting the European University Association annual conference. Foto: Skjalg Bøhmer Vold

Will discuss autonomy and freedom in Europe

The European University Association is arranging its annual conference. Rector Dag Rune Olsen is the host, and he is looking forward to discussing solutions to threats to the role of facts and knowledge in society.

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The European University Association (EUA), the representative organization of more than 800 universities in 47 European countries, will Thursday and Friday be having its annual conference in Bergen.

The University of Bergen (UiB) is hosting the conference. Rector Dag Rune Olsen is honored, but also concerned about a knowledge based Europe under pressure.

The theme of the conference is «Autonomy and freedom: The future sustainability of universities».

— This is the first time the conference is held in Norway, and with all the rectors gathering to discuss issues in the years to come, which is important in itself. But autonomy, academic freedom, and freedom of speech is under attack, in parts of Europe as well. How people regard fact and truth is also under pressure, he says to Khrono, adding:

— This challenges universities and knowledge institutions on the role of knowledge in society.

Autonomy, academic freedom, and freedom of speech is under attack, in parts of Europe as well. How people regard fact and truth is also under pressure.

Dag Rune Olsen

Along with Olsen and EUA president Rolf Tarrach, Norwegian Minister of Education and Research, Torbjørn Røe Isaksen, will be opening the conference. He says to Khrono that the EUA has chosen an important topic for this year’s conference.

— In an increasingly volatile world, with rising populism and an abundance of «fake news», academic freedom and the autonomy of our academic institutions is more important than ever. Academic freedom is a pressing concern right now.

Encourages Hungarian authorities

The Minister points to Hungary, where parliament has passed a law that may have severe consequences for the American-Hungarian institution Central European University.

— This new law gives cause for grave concern and may be in conflict with fundamental values such as the free exchange of ideas and academic freedom. I want to encourage Hungarian authorities to secure full academic freedom and integrity in their country, he says, continuing:

— We need our universities and colleges to actively take part in responding to the grand challenges of our time. For instance, now that we are on the brink of a revolution in our labour market: What can they do to ensure that students not only graduate with skills that are in demand today, but also have the ability to adapt and renew their knowledge and skills, he asks.

Universities needed more than ever

UiB-rector Olsen says that modern society is based on knowledge, and that democracy demands an enlightened and engaged public.

— There is a demand and a need for universities, more than ever.

— What do you feel about hosting this conference?

— At a university like ours we have conferences almost every week. This one is particularly important, and I am proud to host this arena where university leaders meet to discuss higher education and research issues, he says.

Rector Olsen believes that the most important discussions on the conference will be how the universities can address the threats to fact and knowledge’s role in society:

— How leadership can develop strategies, what measures can be taken to defend the position of institutions like ours, and also how to communicate the importance of knowledge institutions.

Statement regarding Hungary

Mari Sundli Tveit, rector of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and the only Norwegian member of the EUA Board, will be chairing one of the four breakout sessions on Thursday, where organizational, financial, staffing and academic autonomy will be discussed. She will be responsible for the first one.

— This is an extremely important conference, and I am looking forward to the sessions. Academic autonomy and freedom is under pressure, and critically in Turkey and now in Hungary, she says.

Tveit says that the EUA will release a renewed statement regarding Hungary, and that they are very concerned.

— The EUA wants to take a strong stance on this, and I am very concerned about the situation for universities in Europe as a whole. Autonomy is only relevant in the context of democracy, she says, adding:

EUA does great work monitoring the different dimensions of autonomy. There are now situations in Europe where democratic norms are under pressure - the EUA is very concerned about the universities’ role in democracy, as the cradle of critical thinking and core values of open society.

Additional reading:

Varying micromanagement

Rector at Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences, Curt Rice, will chair the same breakout session as Tveit, but on Friday. He is looking forward to discussing issues concerning leadership and working with local an national government.

— I expect the opportunity to meet a number of European colleagues, both from institutions like ours, and institutions like the one we aspire to be, says Rice.

He elaborates on the autonomy theme of the conference:

— The micromanagement of institutions varies in Norway. The new white paper on quality in higher education is good in this regard. It gives guidance for adjustment, while not micromanaging how to implement it.

He is also worried by the degree of government involvement, related to the shift from state financing to external sources, including the Research Council of Norway:

— I recognize that it is legitimate for a government to say in what fields research should be done. Researchers cannot only pursue their own curiosity, but on the issue of academic freedom this influences researchers career paths. An increased use of temporary employees, people getting post-doc after post-doc, it forces people to choose research topics to a greater extent based on getting quick and publishable results, he says, continuing:

— I am looking forward to discussing these issues.

Streamed in part

The conference will not be streamed in entirety, but the Plenary I: University Autonomy in Europe will be streamed from 14:30 to 16:00 Thursday.

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