It seems appropriate to distinguish at least two aspects of academic freedom: (a) freedom from external constraints in choosing topics, concepts, methods and sources, which in western democracies generally enjoys a certain level of protection by law; (b) freedom to act in the pursuit of goals and values, with academic staff being in control of the relevant means to do so, which is generally strictly related to the overall organisation of universities and the higher education system at large. Both these aspects have been understood as necessary conditions for producing and disseminating new knowledge, i.e. the two main functions of higher education institutions. It can be added that academic freedom has been considered as one of the elements defining the academic profession, at least after the Second World War. On the one hand, academic freedom is strictly connected with the idea that the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake through research represents the main goal of the academic work. On the other hand, academic freedom and peer review are considered as necessary devices to ensure quality, i.e. quality is ensured by the self-steering capacities of academics or their professional autonomy. In the last few decades, several processes have had an impact on academic freedom: (a) the rise of higher education institutions as more autonomous corporate bodies, which has implied the strengthening of the role of administrative staff at the expense of the academic community, a trend that has been named ‘managerialism’; (b) the drive of governments away from more direct forms of control in favour of a system of distant steering, which has implied stronger accountability of higher education institutions and academics and the use of assessment devices; (c) the increasing demands to and pressures on academics and higher education by both the economy and society to support economic development, innovation, and social progress, a trend to which we refer to as growing expectations of relevance. The impact of the first two processes is quite clear and pertains mostly to relationships within higher education institutions and to the relationship between academics and the state. The impact of the last process is less clear and pertains to the relationships between academics and the external world, mostly the economy, but also society. Building on the results of the Changing Academic Profession survey, this article will address the issue of the growing pressures on academics to be ‘relevant’ to both society and the economy, and of the mechanisms through which the notion of relevance intrudes into the academic profession in selected European countries, especially evaluation, funding, and specific kinds of research activities.
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