Australian university groups dispute ‘academic freedom’ definition

Proposed definition could provide get-out-of-jail-free card for ‘rogue academics’, some claim

March 2, 2020
Source: Getty

Australian university groups have mounted a rearguard action against part of education minister Dan Tehan’s plan to enshrine academic freedom in legislation.

Umbrella group Universities Australia (UA) has warned of “unintended consequences” from the proposed insertion of a definition of academic freedom in the Higher Education Support Act (HESA).

In a submission to the Department of Education, UA stresses its support for the government’s “policy intent”. However, it says, an all-encompassing definition of academic freedom would undermine universities’ institutional autonomy.

The definition would also be inconsistent with the recommendations of reviewer Robert French, who proposed more robust safeguards for freedom of speech and academic freedom but emphasised that they should be voluntary for universities and not imposed in legislation.

The UA submission also highlights problems with the proposed definition, particularly the fourth of seven bullet points. That entry outlines an essential element of academic freedom as the “freedom of academic staff, without constraint imposed by reason of their employment by the university, to make lawful public comment on any issue in their personal capacities”.

UA says this precondition runs the risk of “conflating some elements of academic freedom with freedom of speech”.

Innovative Research Universities (IRU) executive director Conor King, who has also raised objections to the proposed definition, said it could lower the bar on academic standards.

“Freedom of speech need have no academic rigour,” Mr King said. “With academic freedom, there’s meant to be a connection to [your] academic skill, knowledge and expertise. Freedom of speech is about a broader [right] to say what you believe and feel, as opposed to what you’ve rationally thought through.”

In its submission on the proposed legislation, the IRU warns that the fourth bullet point could provide “rogue academics” with “undue protection” from the usual standards of academic scrutiny and rigour.

“When challenged about inaccurate statements or research, the proposed wording would seem to allow any academic to defend themselves by claiming to have been acting in a personal capacity rather than a professional one.

“A university academic would [seem to] be within her or his rights to publicly declare they hold a racial, sexuality or gender prejudice against students they are teaching. They would seem to be able to defend themselves by claiming to have spoken in a personal capacity, not an academic one,” the IRU said.

The submission says there is no need to define academic freedom in legislation because it is a “well-known concept” specified in various ways in university policies and enterprise agreements − many of which were updated before the government floated the HESA amendment.

“A legislated definition would place heavy weight on a specific set of words, not the evolving application of the core concept,” the submission says.

UA chief executive Catriona Jackson said she supported the government’s proposed change to HESA’s objects, with a reference to “free intellectual inquiry” replaced by the term “freedom of speech and academic freedom”. The IRU also supports this change, but both groups oppose defining “academic freedom” in the act.

The IRU said that if the government insisted on including the definition, bullet point four should “be removed in its entirety”.

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Reader's comments (2)

Many years ago I was a Lecturer at an Australian University and Freedom of Speech was fundamental to the University's Rules and Regulation. However, when I refused to take bribes from Overseas Students and expressed my opinion on The ABC Radio program, the hierarchy discriminated, abused, threatened, harassed, and bullied me, and finally forced me out of the system because I "was not one of the group taking bribes". Even the Vice-Chancellor was taking bribes along with many other senior staff. Freedom of Speech at Australian Universities is meant to support those people who are prepared to follow the crowd and express themselves in accordance of the wishes of the hierarchy. This includes bribary and corruption, cheating, sexual favours, free holidays etc.
It is perhaps worth noting in the context of this story that the current president of the IRU group is Eeva Leinonen, VC at Murdoch University. Murdoch University is currently in a legal dispute with Gerd Schröder-Turk following his whistle-blowing on ABC's 4 Corners re international student recruitment.