Australian government moves to legislate on academic freedom

‘Real action’ will come when the government changes the regulator’s standards, policy expert says

October 28, 2020
Parliament House, Canberra, Australia, government, politics
Source: iStock
Parliament House, Canberra

Australia’s government has taken another step to enforce academic freedom in the nation’s universities, introducing legislation that defines the concept and requires institutions to embrace the new definition in their policy frameworks.

The “freedom of speech” bill also replaces the term “free intellectual inquiry” in the sector’s key underpinning legislation, the Higher Education Support Act (Hesa), with the distinct concepts of “freedom of speech” and “academic freedom”.

Education minister Dan Tehan said that the changes, which have been introduced into parliament’s lower house, would help ensure consistency: “When universities foster robust inquiry and open debate they advance our collective knowledge and strengthen our society.

“Even a limited number of incidents seen as affecting freedom of speech may have an adverse impact on public perception of the higher education sector.”

He told Sky News that James Cook University would not have been able to sack its outspoken marine physicist Peter Ridd if the proposed law had been in place. “It’s…incredibly important, especially in the current geostrategic climate, that we understand that all academics and all students at universities have the right to be able to speak their mind," he added.

The bill is one of the government’s three responses to last year’s review of free speech on Australian campuses by former High Court chief justice Robert French. Former Deakin University vice-chancellor Sally Walker is also reviewing universities’ adherence to Mr French’s model code for the protection of freedom of speech and academic freedom.

And the government intends to amend the “threshold standards”, which govern the regulatory activities of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (Teqsa), to include the new definition of academic freedom.

The Hesa change was demanded by populist party One Nation as a condition of its support for the government’s recent reforms to higher education funding. The government apparently intended to make the change anyway, having undertaken consultations early this year before the pandemic struck.

Australian National University policy expert Andrew Norton said that the bill would be “pretty meaningless”, pointing out that Mr French himself had acknowledged that legislative amendments were not essential to support his model code. “It just provides more solid legal grounds for Tehan to insist on the model code,” Professor Norton said.

“The real action will be the threshold standards for Teqsa. That has real legal bite because to be registered as a provider, you’ve got to comply with the standards. Universities will be looking very carefully at how it impacts their registration.”

Under the new definition, academic freedom entitles students and academic staff to express opinions about their universities as well as their disciplines. It also entitles academics to participate in professional and representative bodies and students to participate in societies and associations, as well as assuring providers’ autonomy.

Professor Norton said the right of students to join campus clubs had “nothing to do with academic freedom” and was more about freedom of association than freedom of speech. “Conceptually, the bill still has problems,” he tweeted. “I don’t think ‘academic freedom’ is the best way of thinking about the rights of undergraduate students.”

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