How ‘public’ should public universities be?

There has been debate about the University of Melbourne’s response to a sex-segregated Islamic event held on campus. But it was an unusual debate, in which the radical feminist Sheila Jeffreys and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott were on much the same side.

U of M VC Glyn Davis pointed this morning to the tensions between gender equality and freedom of association raised by this case.

Some commenters on my Facebook page argued that as a ‘public’ university made a difference to how we should weigh up the conflicting considerations – that even if we should tolerate sex segregation in society generally, it should not happen at the ‘public’ University of Melbourne:

This is, however, a publicly funded university and I assume it’s more then likely that the venue was provided at lower/no cost then a private space; effectively meaning the event was subsidised by the taxpayer. For the sake of reputation of the institution, as well as applying best principles, events that entail gender segregation should be clearly not allowed on campus.

The likes of Glyn Davis must remember that they are public servants.

Most universities in Australia are more akin to government departments than private enterprises, they are established by legislation that allows for extensive control over the way they conduct themselves.

‘Public university’ is not a legal concept. The University of Melbourne’s legislation rather pointedly refers to it as ‘public spirited’ rather than public. University staff are not employed under public service legislation, and the governmnent of the day has no say in academic or professional staff appointments.

In practice, the term ‘public university is used to describe the universities listed in Table A of the Higher Education Support Act 2003. But it is not a term that appears in the legislation.

Table A universities do have greater access to public funds than private higher education providers. Most (though not all – Australian Catholic University is the exception) are subject to some public sector requirements in their own state, perhaps most significantly administrative law obligations such as freedom of information.

But I would generally defend the ‘public spirited’ rather than ‘public’ formulation in the U of M Act. There are good small-c constitutional reasons for thinking that universities should be substantially autonomous of government, places of independent thought and speech. Governments have historically tended to accept that view. Though state governments appoint university or council senate members, they only appoint a minority. State governments especially have taken a laissez-faire approach to academic matters.

To me, public funding should be seen as transaction. Governments are entitled to get what they pay for (such as a number of student places), but this should not give them broader rights over the institution. That some taxpayer money might have been used in building the lecture theatre where the Islamic event was held does not give government any on-going veto power over how the theatre should be used.

None of this means that universities should be immune from criticism. But to me the fact that the U of M was set up by a Victorian government statute, or that it receives Commonwealth funding, does not add anything to the case for preventing sex-segregated events on campus.

2 thoughts on “How ‘public’ should public universities be?

  1. Universities are like many organisations that deal with the government. So Fairfax and News sell advertising to the government and earn an income but nobody thinks they are government departments or controlled by government or that their employees are public servants.


  2. I think a piece in the conversation gives the best explanation on the legitimacy / illegitimacy of segregation thus far in the coverage

    “However, the event at Melbourne University was held at an institution that is publicly-funded and where participants may have come from a range of Muslim and non-Muslim backgrounds. As such, participants should be left to decide where they want to sit, regardless of their gender.”

    The issue is less one of whether the room was publicly funded and more one of whether the event was open to the public and not just a private function of those sharing the same cultural norms.


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