Liberal Senator James Paterson recently called for universities to be punished if they fail to uphold the values of intellectual freedom and free speech. He said fringe academics in universities are “an angry minority” who are “hell-bent on enforcing [their] ideological hegemony”.
The punishment he envisages is the witholding of funds. He argues government funding for universities should be tied directly to following the rules of upholding free speech and academic freedom. Surely this sounds like a good idea – universities should support intellectual freedom and free speech, right?
Of course they should. But that’s not the whole story.
I have been researching the intersection between freedom of speech and politics for decades. In my view, Paterson’s argument is based on incomplete or even incorrect information about how universities operate.
Universities do uphold free speech
All Australian universities are required by law to commit to intellectual freedom as a condition of operating. This is also their central purpose. All Australian universities have guarantees of academic freedom contained in their governance documents, which can be located in the enterprise agreement or elsewhere.
The Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) audit to which Senator Paterson refers to make his point said a number of universities don’t have explicit policies to protect free intellectual inquiry. It did note that:
Some of Australia’s universities do mention academic freedom in either enterprise bargaining agreements, or as part of other policies, however do not maintain standalone policies on academic freedom.
It’s not entirely clear what the IPA means by a “standalone policy”.
It names, for example, ANU, for not having such a policy. But ANU does have a policy on academic freedom outlined in their enterprise agreement with staff.
There is no good evidence to support the claim universities don’t have any governance policies at all that support intellectual freedom.
As the IPA’s audit acknowledges, many universities - including some of those marked down by the IPA as failing to meet their standard of commitment to intellectual freedom - do, in fact, mention academic freedom in several policy documents such as enterprise bargaining agreements and other codes of conduct. This detail didn’t come across in Paterson’s article.
It all depends on what you define as a standalone policy on intellectual freedom.
In my view, the academic freedom provisions outlined in enterprising bargaining agreements - on which universities have signed off - are a really clear commitment to intellectual freedom. To the IPA, it is not enough.
What could be considered a breach of academic freedom?
The kinds of things that would breach academic freedom would be instructions by managers or external funders to research a particular problem, instead of allowing academics to decide their own research focus.
Read more: Explainer: what is free speech?
Another example would be academics being asked to cover up findings adverse to their funder, instead of allowing the research results to be published as they are.
And it would breach intellectual freedom if an external organisation were to decide who to hire. Universities’ normal hiring procedures have been designed to preserve and protect intellectual freedom by focusing on academic merit and excellence. Monash University’s recruitment policy is a good example.
Should funding determine intellectual outcomes?
It’s an accepted part of the contemporary university funding environment that universities seek alternative sources of financial support. This is done in order to reduce their reliance on government funding. It’s a routine part of university management’s jobs to look around for sources to help them meet their mandates of research and teaching.
What’s crucial in securing funding is that universities don’t sacrifice their core principles – especially intellectual freedom.
So, universities can accept funding from almost any organisation as long as that funding is free of influence. The kinds of decisions that need to be made internally by universities include who to hire and what to put in the curriculum. These decisions must be based on principles of merit and academic excellence.
Paterson, and other conservative politicians, believe a university declining funding to set up a Centre for the Study of Western Civilisation is a breach of intellectual freedom. But it has been reported that the reason ANU declined this funding was because the funder wanted to determine who to hire and curriculum content.
If this precedent were introduced, it would pose a great risk to universities’ independent intellectual inquiry across the country.
Undermining the university system
What’s perhaps most worrying about Paterson’s article and the discussion around it is that it contributes to misunderstandings in the broader community about how universities operate.
Group of Eight CEO Vicki Thomson recently described government statements on university funding that deliberately mislead the public as to their financial strengths as fake data.
Paterson’s article could easily serve the current government’s agenda by helping to undermine universities in the public’s eye. Universities Australia estimates the current funding freeze will cost the economy A$12 billion.
We saw this in recent – again false – claims about universities punishing students for using gendered language. Most large organisations have conventions for inclusive language use – News Limited and the Australian public service included. Yet, the minister for education (who presumably knows this) slammed universities for dictating “nanny state stuff”.
Paterson’s article poses a risk because it could contribute to undermining the value of universities in the broader community. When intellectual freedom is stifled, and government funding withdrawn on the basis that universities don’t do the bidding of private funders, the academy is in deep trouble.
The greatest of ironies is Paterson says he is arguing in favour of “free speech” when his views would truly undermine intellectual freedom.
Correction: A draft version of this article was incorrectly published. This is the final edited version.