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Focus On Interview: A conversation with Dr. Milica Popović on fundamental values in the European Higher Education Area

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Focus On Interview: A conversation with Dr. Milica Popović on fundamental values in the European Higher Education Area

02 July 2024

Dr. Milica Popović is a political scientist specialising in memory studies, political sociology, and higher education studies. She obtained a PhD in comparative political sociology from Sciences Po Paris and one in Balkan studies from the University of Ljubljana. In 2021–2023, she was a postdoctoral fellow and project lead at the Global Observatory on Academic Freedom at Central European University in Vienna, receiving a DAAD Fundamental Academic Values Award for Early Career Scientists for this work. Beyond her academic work, she contributes to development of the higher education policy in Europe, seeking to better the conditions for scholars and especially early-career researchers.

Following up on the publication of the latest Bologna Process Implementation Report, Eurydice had the chance to interview her and have an interesting conversation on fundamental values in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) such as academic freedom and student participation. 

 

Only sixteen EHEA countries have developed guidelines and mechanisms to support academic freedom. Most countries reported no top-level actions to enhance this fundamental value. Why do you think so few countries have mentioned any initiatives and mechanisms to protect/promote academic freedom and what kind of initiatives would be desirable for countries to develop?

 

While it is certainly welcoming to encourage, promote and enhance fundamental values, we have to be careful not to conflate the existence of guidelines and mechanisms with the state of academic freedom in a certain country – we have examples where the state overregulation of academic freedom actually leads to its diminishment. Nevertheless, academic freedom has been for a long time taken for granted, as a self-understood value and a right. It has been understood as a standard principle of higher education exercised by the professorial elites, with stable jobs, public servant status and/or tenure - privileged strata of the society. 

 

Not only the structure of societies, and the distribution of power has changed, but also the structure of our universities, production of knowledge and distribution of, or at least requests for, power have shifted in the last decades. Thus, the universities opened the space for a dialogue on the most demanding and difficult questions and immediately, as such, became targets. The desirable initiatives would be the ones allowing the academic community itself – the contemporary academic community including students, precarious early career researchers, and people from disadvantaged backgrounds – to create, agree on, develop and implement; instead of the top-down approaches. 

 

What risk factors should we consider when assessing the state of academic freedom between countries?

 

I believe it is of essential importance not to quantify assessment of values. Turning everything into numbers and rankings only devalues the fundamental principles the EHEA has adopted. Production, exchange and dissemination of knowledge is a much more complex endeavor than the bureaucratic structures would like to admit, and quantification can quickly turn into a tool for infringing on academic freedom. It also allows for self-congratulatory discourses by states and governments, thus silencing the dissenting voices. The biggest challenge indeed is how do we evaluate a freedom without curbing it through the evaluation itself.

The important task is to find that balanced place between no regulations and overregulation – micromanagement of spaces where the fiercest debates in the society should take place, like the universities should be, leads to silencing and censorship, as we have witnessed recently in cases of wars and occupations, genocide and famines, colonial and gender issues, or critical race theory. A country looking reasonably good on paper could miserably fail in the practice. We tend to discriminate against Eastern European and Southeast European countries, sometimes on fully reasonable grounds, and yet we have seen flagrant cases of infringements on academic freedom in Western Europe lately. Again, listening to the academic community itself is the key to understand how academic freedom can be preserved.

 

Academic integrity faces new challenges today, such as the development of artificial intelligence. How do you believe this may impact academic integrity, and how can Higher Education Institutions best respond to these challenges?

 

We cannot, nor should we, stop technological developments. Artificial intelligence is here to stay, like it was once (and actually not so long ago) the case with internet. So the challenge is how to make it work with AI, and make AI work for us. The essence of academic integrity lies within each member of the academic community, not the tools they have or might have at hands. If we believe our colleagues, and our students are decent and honest human beings striving to acquire and produce knowledge, then we might exit the dynamic of the continuous imposition of search for exclusively excellent results. Exiting the “rat race” and the unreasonable demands put in front of researchers and students today would certainly benefit both the community itself and academic integrity as such. Giving the space, time, and material conditions to science to produce excellent results but also excellent failures, without the pressures of time and perpetual threat of losing their livelihood, would have the biggest benefit for academic integrity. All the rest is the matter of minor corrective instruments which can temporarily put a bandage, until something else is invented – beyond AI.

 

Although student participation is required by legislation in nearly all countries, European Students’ Union reported some worrying trends regarding the strength of student voices within higher education institutions and underlined the need to strengthen the principle of collegiality. Why is it important to ensure this takes place and what are the possible side effects of this weakness?

 

Student participation is exactly the prime example of how regulations, guidelines, mechanisms can all look good on paper and yet we could be facing a very different reality. Students are the future of our planet, and the essence of the existence of universities. We don’t – or at least we should not - prepare syllabi to please our egos showing the width of our knowledge, but to open this wondrous space of co-creation of knowledge with students who come today from diverse backgrounds, diverse experiences, diverse ages, diverse parts of the world and give them an opportunity to teach us as much as we teach them.

 

Without giving this chance to students, we cancel the purpose of higher education. So, if we do not allow student participation at all levels of higher education systems and institutions, and on all issues, we deny their right of being partners and colleagues. Even more so, in the last months, we have witnessed practices we have all hoped to be practices of the past – calling up the police onto peaceful protests, shutting down important conversations about most pressing issues of our world but also management of the institutions, and even instances of violence against students. These practices must stop, and the space for dialogue must be (re)opened otherwise the universities will remain empty shells of their promises to advance the knowledge base and encourage development of democratic citizens.

 

Now that the EHEA has adopted statements to ensure a common understanding about each of the fundamental values, what should be the next steps to improve their protection and promotion?

 

The EHEA community needs to take a deep look and to understand how fundamental values should re-energize the Bologna Process and the development of the EHEA instead of becoming another ticking box in the administrative reports. Communication efforts would have to be essential to avoid the trap, yet once again, allowing for some governments and states to interpret and reinterpret the fundamental values according to their own needs and politics. More direct communication with the whole academic community, and insistence on continuous exchange with them would enhance the ownership within the process and help the EHEA better its strategies and mechanisms.

 

So, informing the academic community about fundamental values, the policy developments at the EHEA level and asking them how they believe we should proceed at the national and institutional levels should be a first step in each and every EHEA member state. The EHEA can be a progressive force within education and research only as much as their members on the ground – researchers and lecturers with and without permanent positions, and short-term contracts, with and without affiliation, and students, full time or part time, are involved in the process. 

 

Author: Anna Maria Volpe 

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