The Magna Charta Universitatum was originally signed by 366 universities in 1988 on the 900th anniversary of the founding of the University of Bologna. The MCU is upheld by a non-profit observatory that ensures adherence to the agreement.
The original 1988 agreement guaranteed institutional and academic freedom, and the indivisibility of teaching and research. Given the unprecedented changes that science and higher education have undergone in the intervening 30 years, in 2020 a new document was drafted to allow universities to renew their commitment to a set of values and missions to orient their activities in the 21st century.
If universities are going to adopt the culture of impact and impact measurement as a central part of their mission, it is important that they adhere to a set of principles and missions, in order to assess how the university’s activity is contributing to a specific goal. The MCU provides a clear expression of a global commitment to the betterment of society, it is therefore something that universities should strongly consider adopting.
Why is academic freedom important?
In the past few years, political polarisation has led to the weaponization of science and pseudo-science to serve short term electoral interests, largely of right wing populists. The ability to distort or subdue knowledge that runs counter to powerful interests, and promote knowledge that does not, presents a powerful danger to society. Climate change, deforestation, public health crises and electoral processes, among many others, have all become political battlegrounds where science has a defining role in moderating public debate and producing relevant knowledge. The guarantee that researchers have the freedom to practise their profession is fundamental to ensure that the quality of this information cannot be compromised by outside influences.
In the Magna Charta 1988:
Intellectual and moral autonomy is the hallmark of any university and a precondition for the fulfilment of its responsibilities to society. That independence needs to be recognised and protected by governments and society at large, and defended vigorously by institutions themselves.
The original charter is relatively restricted in terms of its vision, committing universities to the indivisibility of teaching and research, and complete autonomy.
The 2020 edition adds to these core principles with a notion of engagement and civic responsibility:
Universities acknowledge that they have a responsibility to engage with and respond to the aspirations and challenges of the world and to the communities they serve, to benefit humanity and contribute to sustainability.
To fulfil their potential, universities require a reliable social contract with civil society, one which supports pursuit of the highest possible quality of academic work, with full respect for institutional autonomy.
The new MCU makes this argument clearly – the first document was concerned primarily with negative freedom – freedom from coercion and external interference. The second MCU is concerned with a notion of positive freedom – the freedom to contribute and participate in the construction of the future. This freedom and autonomy must be exercised in a social contract with society. Researchers and universities are free to explore new knowledge within their discipline without restrictions or external interference, but this must be based within a commitment to the betterment of life.
The final key point of new inclusion for the Magna Charta 2020 is a commitment to social inclusion:
Education is a human right, a public good, and should be available to all. Universities recognise that learning is a lifelong activity with tertiary education as one part of a continuum. Within that one part, universities serve diverse learners at all stages of their lives. […] individuals and communities, often due to inequitable circumstances, have difficulty gaining access to higher education […] To realise human potential everywhere, universities deliberately seek ways to welcome and engage with diverse voices and perspectives.
Being an MCU signatory means committing to the premise all citizens have the opportunity to access public higher education throughout the course of their lives.
|Signed MCU 1988
|Signed MCU 2020
|Pontificial Catholic University of Sao Paulo – PUC-SP
|Universidade Catolica de Pelotas (UCPEL)
|Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (UERJ)
|Universidade Estadual de Campinas (UNICAMP)
|Universidade Estadual de Ponta Grossa (UEPG)
|Universidade Estadual Paulista “Julio de Mesquita Filho” (UNESP)
|Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (UFMG)
|Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina
|Universidade Federal do Ceara (UFC)
|Universidade Federal do Espirto Santo (UFES)
|Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte (UFRN)
|Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul – UFRGS
|Universidade Federal Fluminense (UFF)
|University of Sao Paulo (USP)
While there are 14 signatories of the original document, just six are signatories of the MCU2020, with USP, Unicamp, Unesp and UFES the only original signatories who renewed their commitment in 2021.
How to become a signatory
The Magna Charta Universitatum Observatory website has a guide to sign, along with the documents needed to begin the signing process. Universities who were original signatories to the 1988 declaration are expected to sign the 2020 version to renew their commitment.
Universities wishing to sign should provide evidence of their commitment to academic and administrative autonomy, and the rector should sign a declaration of intention to join.