University autonomy, threatened by EU data protection regulation?


The digital architecture of universities is increasingly dependent on dominant platforms of private companies. At the same time, it is unclear how universities are affected by the European data legislation which is currently under debate. The rectors of the institutions that build up the League of European Research Universities ( LERU ) have approved a declaration that raises the need to recognize the importance of public data, its governance and access, and addresses the stakeholders involved: legislators, digital providers, universities and industry.

Data is the fuel that drives the development of the economy, academia and societies around the world. In this context, universities have an important role to play. They are the guardians of a common culture of knowledge and an agent of new knowledge. However, they are becoming increasingly dependent on dominant platform companies, which have become the driving force behind the design of public universities’ learning and teaching environments. These companies define and drive the digital architectures of universities through the hardware and software they create, constraining users and providers. According to the LERU rectors, this model threatens institutional autonomy and academic freedom, damaging the role of the university in society.

The main European data legislation, currently underway, is leading to a key question: how these new legal frameworks specifically affect universities LERU worries that universities in the EU are considered equal to market sectors. "It is important that the public interests of universities are clearly differentiated from the private interests of technology companies when drafting this legislation", notes the rector of the UB, Joan Guŕrdia. "Universities must be recognized for their public value and be considered as essential structures for society", he adds.

In this Data Declaration, LERU calls on all stakeholders involved in the drafting and development of measures to include both infrastructure and legislation to support public storage and access to research data managed by universities and public infrastructures. It also calls for the promotion of open-access university research publications, as well as the availability of all underlying data -from algorithms and metadata to software-without embargo. Another claim is to favour the university control over digital learning and research tools, such as productivity management tools, learning environments or videoconferencing. According to the document, these tools should be provided partly as public infrastructure and partly through collaboration with platform companies.

Led by Paul Ayris, pro-vice-provost at the University College London (UCL), the document has been supported by the LERU Information and Open Access Group led by Ignasi Labastida, rector’s delegate for Open Science at the UB.