Valerie Amos: ‘academic freedom and freedom of speech must be protected and respected’

Students around the world are taking a view on their universities’ colonial past. John Stillwell/PA Wire

This is an extract from a speech made by Valerie Amos for the Menzies Oration on Higher Education at the University of Melbourne on September 14, 2016.


You will be aware of the student movement linked to the #rhodesmustfall campaign. Originally directed against the statue at the University of Cape Town, it rapidly moved to Oxford in the UK.

Students took a strong view of their universities colonial past. Indeed at SOAS the “decolonisation” of the university is a student priority.

Guardian journalist Andrew Anthony wrote:

In one sense then, the campaign is an example of healthy argument and free speech in operation.

But the campaign has also come to symbolise something else, a new intolerance of words and images that is sweeping across British and American university campuses, a zealous form of cultural policing that relies on accusatory rhetoric and a righteous desire to censor history, literature, politics and culture.

I don’t believe in censoring history. I believe we must shed a spotlight on it and show how it informs current understanding and behaviour.

Wherever we might stand on this issue, academic freedom and freedom of speech must be protected and respected.

But it must also be recognised that these rights are not absolute – these are rights that need to be exercised with due regard for others – with respect.

Our students today are tomorrow’s leaders and given the challenges we face in our world – injustice, inequality, the effects of climate change and environmental degradation, conflict, extremism – we need them to be active global citizens. We need them to think beyond borders. Our world is joined up. The biggest challenge I faced when I was at the UN was Syria. I was in charge of humanitarian affairs and in a four year period saw the crisis escalate.

There are now around 6.5 million people internally displaced, an estimated 400,000 casualties and nearly 4.8 million registered refugees. It’s a political crisis requiring strong global leadership. Universities too can play a role.

Universities enable students to develop a critical global perspective on the world. Inspire them to be active global citizens.

Our students need to appreciate that our world looks very different from different countries and continents.

Duties and entitlements, for example, look very different if you are relatively poor from a country that was colonised rather than coming from a country which was an empire.

Citizenship and protection might be more about enough to eat and drink, basic health care, shelter and education rather than the opportunity to go on holiday or consume whatever you wish.

There are also degrees of democracy in different parts of the world which lead us to ask unsettling questions.

Will a more authoritarian strong state tradition like we see in China and some other parts of Asia be compatible with a global citizenship that stresses rights more than duties and obligations – whether to family or community?

The negotiation of what truly “global” citizenship might look like will require give from the West as well as the East. From the North as well as the South. And those who most desperately need such citizenship, particularly with its rights of shelter, are refugees – and nobody seems to want to help them. Their rights are being denied the world over.

The way in which the current refugee crisis is being debated, discussed and exploited, including during the period in the run up to Britain’s referendum on membership of the European Union, shows the way in which narrow, domestic political interests are crowding out engagement with globalisation and the opportunity it represents. But globalisation also presents significant challenge in times of slow economic growth.

For those of us in Europe, in countries like the UK and France, there are questions we can no longer run away from.

We must ask ourselves: what sort of society we want to be, one that is open and inclusive, or closed and inward-looking? And, how do we build plural societies which strengthen rather than threaten our diversity and multifaceted identities?

Here at the University of Melbourne you pride yourselves on your ability to make a difference. It is something which unites our two institutions.

When I was at the United Nations, every day there were questions about the UN’s credibility and legitimacy. And yes I saw paralysis. Political failure. But I also saw hope, tenacity and courage.

I saw people supporting each other in difficult and almost unimaginable conditions. I saw humanitarian workers do everything possible to not only make changes on the ground but to be strong advocates for people in need.

The world desperately needs evidence-based policymaking. A recognition of the context and backdrop against which critical political decisions are being made. So we need to protect our role and raise our voice.

Universities are about the communal examination of ideas.

As the next generation of intellectuals, while you have a duty to test and critique the boundaries of scholarship, you also have a duty to ensure respect for others as these boundaries are tested.

The debate will only ever be as good as the space it is given. Argument and disagreement are all part of the course to finding solutions.

It is only through the interplay of constructive and engaged examination, that we can progress in our understanding and knowledge of the world.

As leaders in higher education – the key sector of society which provides such space across the world. I feel we have a duty to preserve and protect free speech. It is a duty I hold dear.

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