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As Melbourne University staff strike over academic freedom, it’s time to take the issue seriously

Academic freedom therefore encompasses the freedom to research the topics we choose, to draw the conclusions we find compelling from the evidence and analysis we undertake, and to speak publicly on those matters. Shutterstock

Some staff at the University of Melbourne will today go on strike. The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) claims the strike is over two issues, one of which is academic freedom. The other is management’s attempt to develop two separate enterprise agreements, one for academic staff and the other for professional staff. The union argues the university is trying to remove current academic and intellectual freedom protections from the agreement. If this is true, it would possibly be the first time a strike has occurred at an Australian university over this specific issue.

This is a highly sensitive subject. Universities are very concerned with reputational issues, and the protection of academic freedom is essential to their ability to attract and retain the best staff and students.

What is academic freedom?

The idea of academic freedom derives from the role of universities as places of higher learning and research. In order to produce new knowledge, universities must be places where academics can push the boundaries of existing knowledge. This means challenging orthodoxies, speaking out even on controversial topics, and being dedicated to the creation of new knowledge.

University researchers are also at the forefront of knowledge in their specific fields, and spend years building up expertise that is not available to those outside the academy. This means they are well-placed to contribute to policy debates in meaningful ways.

The topics on which academics may choose to comment cannot be arbitrarily restricted either, due to their special role in intellectual life and the pursuit of new knowledge. It would be wrong to allow someone else to determine what lies within an academic’s expertise, given the overlaps and interactions between fields. This is why universities do not try to limit the topics on which academics may speak publicly.

Academic freedom therefore encompasses the freedom to research the topics we choose, draw conclusions we find compelling from the evidence and analysis we undertake, and speak publicly on those topics and related matters.

Read more: University changes to academic contracts are threatening freedom of speech

Academic freedom is recognised internationally as an abiding principle essential to the mission of universities as institutes of higher learning. This understanding has been articulated by UNESCO, and by the American Association of University Professors since its famous Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure in 1940.

In Australian universities, academic freedom is routinely recognised as an important principle that is enshrined in a range of governance policies.

It is not an unlimited freedom, though. It is well understood that academic freedom does not extend to vilification, harassment, or defamation. Nor are academics protected by academic freedom if they engage in misconduct, such as making up research findings or spending research funds inappropriately.

Protections in Australian universities

These understandings have led to the protection of academic freedom - also called intellectual freedom - in all Australian universities, often through a combination of governance policies and enterprise agreements.

-The Australian National University’s current enterprise agreement protects academic freedom (Clause 21).

-The University of Sydney has a Charter of Academic Freedom, and also protects intellectual freedom in its current enterprise agreement (Clause 315).

-The University of New South Wales recognises academic freedom in its Code of Conduct, and protects intellectual freedom in its academic staff agreement (Clause 23).

-The University of Western Australia recognises academic freedom in its Code of Conduct, and also protects intellectual freedom in its academic staff agreement (Clause 5).

-The University of Adelaide protects academic freedom in its current enterprise agreement as well (Clause 2.6).

-The University of Tasmania elucidates academic freedom as a governing principle of the university, and protects intellectual freedom in its staff agreement (Clause 10).

The University of Melbourne also has an academic freedom of expression policy, as set out both in its implementing act and in its council regulations.

However, management is proposing a change in the terminology in the enterprise agreement from the current recognition of intellectual freedom as a fundamental principle of the university (Clause 10) to a more brief acknowledgement that the university is committed to academic freedom as stated in its council regulations.

The union is challenging this, because it sees it as a downgrading of the existing protections.

Academic freedom must be protected

Academic freedom is a touchstone for a wider debate about free speech, and when universities are seen to be putting pressure on it, staff tend to react quickly.

And rightly so. For example, in 2016, La Trobe University academic Roz Ward was temporarily suspended for calling the Australian flag racist in what many regarded as an over-reach by the university. She was then quickly reinstated.

Read more: Despite what politicians and the media say, freedom of speech is alive and well on campus

There are other real concerns about free speech in universities. For example, in 2017, news reports suggested some universities were feeling pressured to censor material that might upset the relatively large numbers of Chinese students studying here. An Australian academic was also detained in China and questioned by authorities. Others have criticised the broad influence of non-democratic states and political cultures on Australia’s internationalised university system.

This is all occurring as Australia is experiencing a plethora of issues related to free speech. The government has also launched its first attempt to assess the impact of university research on the broader community.

Now is the time to expand understandings of academic freedom and to institutionally support its status. Any attempt to remove the principle of academic freedom from staff enterprise agreements should be interpreted as watering down its protection. But there seems little prospect of that actually happening, regardless of claims by the union to that effect.

It is important for the reputation of all universities, and commensurately their ability to attract top-class researchers and students, that they do not go down this path. Doing so would undermine the very nature of the university’s public purpose.

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