Australian universities have bristled at the government’s decision to review free speech on campuses and develop a code of conduct to promote and protect freedom of expression and intellectual inquiry.
The government said that University of Western Australia chancellor Robert French, a former chief justice of the High Court, would review local and international approaches and chart “realistic and practical options”.
Education minister Dan Tehan said all free speech must be protected at universities, “even where what is being said may be unpopular or challenging”.
“The best university education is one where students are taught to think for themselves,” he said. “If necessary, the French review could lead to the development of an Australian version of the Chicago statement, which is a voluntary framework that clearly sets out a university’s commitment to promoting freedom of speech.”
Mr Tehan said representative body Universities Australia had been consulted on the review. But UA said it had not provided input into the terms of reference, and derided the review as irrelevant and unnecessary.
It said that there was no impediment to free speech on campuses and that universities had adopted a Chicago-type charter – in a joint commitment from the nation’s vice-chancellors – in early November. The commitment is among more than 100 policies, codes and agreements that support “free intellectual inquiry”, it said.
“In this context, it is unclear what issue the government is seeking to address,” said chair Margaret Gardner. “Australian universities have been on the public record through the ages affirming our long-standing commitment to informed, evidence-based discussion and vigorous debate.”
Professor Gardner, vice-chancellor of Monash University, accused Canberra of pandering to commentators “who want government to override university autonomy with heavy-handed external regulation and red tape”. But Mr Tehan stressed that universities were autonomous bodies and that the code of conduct would be “sector-led”.
Mr French said he had agreed to undertake the review “on a cooperative and consultative basis with the university sector, and respecting the legitimate institutional autonomy of Australian universities”.
He said the review would aim to produce a “model code” that could be used as “a point of reference in any consideration by universities of their existing rules and guidelines”.
Mr Tehan said the review would examine universities’ existing materials including codes of conduct, enterprise agreements, policy statements and strategic plans. It will also assess the effectiveness of the Higher Education Standards Framework to promote and protect freedom of expression and intellectual inquiry, and recommend revisions or clarifications to the standards.
While universities regard any attempt to regulate free speech as an oxymoron, Mr French is considered a balanced voice in Australia’s increasingly fractious debate around freedom of expression.
In a September speech, Mr French raised the possibility of “legislative intervention” to enforce free speech on campuses. But he said a better option would be to “maintain a robust culture of open speech and discussion, even though it may involve people hearing views that they find offensive or hurtful”.
“There should be a very high threshold to be overcome before universities, academics or student bodies or groups seek to prevent speech on campus by reference to its content,” he cautioned. “If the threshold is set too low…and applies an extended concept of ‘safety’ in support of restrictions, the reputation of universities in the wider community might be at risk.”
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