Australian campuses bid to save autonomy from Canberra meddling

Universities face ban on deals with foreign partners that lack ‘institutional autonomy’, as they wrestle with similar demons

March 29, 2021
Surfers carry their boards on Sydney’s Bondi Beach after it reopened after a five week closure, autonomy, free from meddling
Source: Getty

Australian universities are battling to maintain their autonomy in the face of escalating government interference – including potential bans on collaborations with universities that lack autonomy from foreign governments.

Academics say it is ironic that the new foreign relations law has come into force amid a plethora of government interventions such as a new free speech code, research grant vetoes and security measures.

Griffith University vice-chancellor Carolyn Evans said that the new law, which allows Canberra to ban universities’ dealings with overseas institutions, showed how governments themselves could jeopardise academic freedom.

“The notion that academics need permission from the government to co-author with [someone] from a foreign country, to co-supervise a PhD, potentially to organise a seminar or workshop – that’s a very serious intrusion,” Professor Evans said.

The law, which passed parliament in December, requires universities to notify Canberra about deals with partner institutions that lack “institutional autonomy” because a foreign government is “in a position to exercise substantial control”.

Meanwhile, an analysis of new funding agreements suggests that Australian universities are being enlisted to deliver the government’s political objectives through “one-sided” arrangements that give bureaucrats too much discretionary power.

The analysis, by Australian National University policy expert Andrew Norton, found that the three-year funding agreements – the first since last year’s Job-ready Graduates reforms – were bloated with “background information” about principles such as “quality” and “public interest”. This left administrators scratching their heads over what parts of the agreements were legally enforceable, and what were simply attempts to exploit universities’ “culture of compliance”.

An education department spokesman said that the agreement template had been “revised” to provide “a non-binding summary of the core elements of the funding relationship between the commonwealth and each institution”. The “background sections” had been included to help universities understand their “key funding streams” and were “not intended to be legally enforceable”.

But Professor Norton said that the new approach left universities battling uncertainty, with important funding conditions or criteria not specified in legal documentation and civil servants “given wide scope to interpret vague terms”. It also allowed for policy decisions to avoid parliamentary scrutiny.

He said that university funding agreements should be reserved for matters that “genuinely” needed to be decided between universities and government, “and not as a regulatory tool to bypass the parliament”.

Professor Norton cited Canberra’s model free speech code as another example of overreach. The government was insisting on its adoption even before a recently passed bill gave it the legal authority to do so – and arguably, the new law still did not empower the government to force universities to adopt particular wordings of their free speech policies.

“The government [is] going beyond its statutory authority in pushing universities to do things,” he said. “The level of red tape intervention has escalated enormously over the past few years. Universities go along with these things because they’re so dependent on the commonwealth.”

University of the Sunshine Coast vice-chancellor Helen Bartlett said that government intervention in universities’ operations had escalated in recent years, largely driven by “community sentiment”. She predicted that the trend would continue with a crackdown on universities’ financial reliance on international students – notwithstanding that the government itself had encouraged development of that income stream.

“The government is going to want to see universities demonstrating that they are not exposed to such risk ever again,” she said.

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