As lawyer Joris Groen writes in his thesis, academic freedom does exist but there’s a certain amount of tension as well. He feels that administrators and the government ought to keep more distance. Scientists and scholars should keep an eye on each other’s work instead.

How much influence do politicians wield at universities? Should cabinet members interfere in the way in which research and education are carried out? These are relevant questions in view of the wish to find out scientists’ and scholars’ political colour, as recently expressed by the VVD political party.

Joris Groen (33), who currently works as a legislation lawyer at the Ministry of Security and Justice, obtained a doctorate at Erasmus University last week with his thesis ‘Academic freedom: a legal voyage of discovery’. This thesis explains how science and scientists’ autonomy is laid down in the law.

Joris Groen Academische Vrijheid promotie
Joris Groen

How much academic freedom do we actually have in the Netherlands?

“Fortunately we’ve got a lot of academic freedom here. Scientists and scholars have a great deal of freedom compared to people in other education sectors. Individual scientists can invoke freedom of speech, and science as a profession has all kinds of statutory rights and freedoms too.”

Where do you see this large degree of academic freedom?

“Academic lecturers have a lot of freedom and say in determining the content of their education, in principle government authorities only set very few quality requirements. In research, too, you can see that supervision is more horizontal than vertical. The peer review principle is an important factor when evaluating the quality of research. It ensures that scientists and scholars keep an eye on each other’s work as equals.”

But you said there was a certain amount of tension as well?

“University councils have increasingly more influence on the programmes. For instance, executive boards sometimes take drastic decisions to abandon certain programmes or reduce funding for these programmes. Sometimes they’re forced to do this because of government requirements, but this isn’t always the case. One good example of this are the cutbacks in the humanities programmes at the University of Amsterdam, which resulted in tremendous protests. And you can also detect tension in research funding. On the one hand, scholars and scientists do have a great deal of say in the matter, but on the other hand, their choices are still controlled by the government.”

Does the Dutch research funding organisation (NWO) limit academic freedom?

“I haven’t actually evaluated NWO, but I did have a look at the case law to see where past conflicts occurred. Apparently there’s been a lot of discussion on the selection procedure, especially in the humanities and social and behavioural sciences. In many cases, it’s like comparing apples with oranges. If you compare legal research proposals with economic ones, who’s qualified to say which type of research is more useful? It’s the same as electing the Sportsman of the Year. Why should Max Verstappen’s racing be any better than Michael van Gerwen’s dart playing?”

You examined accreditation of education as well.

“In the accreditation procedure, you can see that they’re aiming for two targets that are actually incompatible. On the one hand, the NVAO (Accreditation Organisation of the Netherlands and Flanders, Ed.) monitors the quality of education, which means that institutions aren’t keen to show their hand. But the NVAO also wants to improve the quality of education. And to do this, you need the freedom to enter into discussions with your peers and take a critical look at your own programme without running the immediate risk of having it turned down.”

The VVD political party wants to investigate alleged ‘left-wing’ bias at universities. Would this violate academic freedom?

“The investigation itself wouldn’t be a violation, but the question is what should be done with the results. Personally, I can’t see this resulting in any meaningful political intervention. Whatever the outcome, even if this kind of bias is actually discovered, politicians will have to exercise considerable restraint. But the government shouldn’t politicise universities. Another point here is that bias in the scientific community would be a big problem for this community, but it’s still up to them to resolve it.”