Academic freedom as a principle and a practice (a review of Open Minds: Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech in Australia)

Open Minds: Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech in Australia is an accessible overview of the subjects in its sub-title. It covers rationales for academic freedom and freedom of speech, the current law, historical controversies, and emerging threats.

Its authors are two law academics, Carolyn Evans and Adrienne Stone, with Evans now a vice-chancellor. Jade Roberts, a legal researcher, assisted them.

As a general concept few people are against academic freedom. Nobody is calling for powerful figures – ministers, bureaucrats, or vice-chancellors for example – to direct the detail of what Australian academics research, teach or say. Yet the historical chapters of Open Minds report many cases through the decades raising issues of ‘academic freedom’. People regularly see exceptions to this otherwise widely-supported idea.

In judging disputed situations first principles can help. Yet these are also the subject of disagreement and grey areas. Academic freedom is not a clear and unchanging principle but instead a practice that has evolved over centuries, originally as institutional autonomy from church and state, with the current idea of academics personally having freedom developing from the late 19th century.

Only this year, after Open Minds was published, have the precise words ‘academic freedom’ with a definition been inserted into university funding legislation. Until then, as the Open Minds chapter on law explains, the language was of ‘free intellectual inquiry’, with universities and regulators left to decide what that meant. Even this terminology is recent, dating from 2011 in funding legislation and accreditation regulation, with ‘free inquiry’ used from 2000 in national legal definitions of a university. Australia has had universities since the 1850s.

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Has Job-ready Graduates increased the number of commencing students?

This morning the government released the first enrolment data of the Job-ready Graduates. The published data covers only 25 of the 40 full universities (including private universities). No information is available on which universities are in the 25, but based on previously published first-half-of-the-year enrolments I estimate that they enrol just over two-thirds of domestic students.

The government had previously published tertiary admission centre applications data, which based on previous years would represent just under two-thirds of all applications.

As each source has significant missing data any conclusions must be tentative. The chart below lines the two sources up by field of education. Each of demand and supply is up about 7 per cent, but there are significant differences between the two at the broad field of education level.

Apparent trends to date

Demand for IT, science and engineering is up, but supply is up by much more. It is possible that the idiosyncrasies of what is in each of the demand and supply datasets explains some of this discrepancy, but also that the national priority places and short courses allocations, which have a policy bias to these fields, are driving up supply more quickly than demand.

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University-Commonwealth funding agreements and the rule of law in higher education

The 2021-23 funding agreements between universities and the government, the first of the Job-ready Graduates era, were put on the DESE website earlier this year. In this post I compare them to the pre-JRG agreements.

My main concern is that the funding agreements are being used for matters that should be based on clear legal rules, not DESE discretion based on a one-sided ‘agreement’.

My concern reflects both the general political principle that policy decisions should be subject to parliamentary scrutiny and the practical problems caused by lack of certainty. Important funding conditions or criteria are not included in any legal document and DESE is given wide scope to interpret vague terms.

A broader scope

The most immediately obvious change is that the new funding agreements include more content than previously. They contain an overall summary of Higher Education Support Act 2003 institutional funding, including the Commonwealth Grant Scheme (CGS) funding that is the legal purpose of the funding agreements; rules around course closures, professional training, and the provision of information on costs and admissions; research, engagement and equity funding; and some background information and principles. The research, engagement and equity material is new and derives its legal standing from separate legislative instruments.

Putting key information in one place is helpful, and I would encourage the government to collate the summary funding tables combining teaching, research, equity and engagement funding for each university into a publication. But funding agreements with parts of varying legal status are not desirable. A mixed document makes it less clear for universities what they must do according to law and what is just the government/Department taking advantage of the sector’s culture of compliance. With such a large share of their income depending on their funding agreement, universities are reluctant to push back against the government’s demands.

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Did COVID-19 reduce female domestic enrolments?

After the annual release of the ABS Education and Work data last November articles appeared suggesting that female university enrolments might have been hit particularly hard by COVID-19.

I could think of a couple of plausible mechanisms. With children sent home from school and childcare restricted women might have given up study, at least temporarily, to look after their kids. The difficulty of doing required clinical placements and teaching rounds during COVID-19 workplace disruptions might have triggered deferrals, which would probably affect women more than men due to their their large majorities in health and education courses.

On the other hand, the quoted fall in female enrolments – 86,000 – was struggling to pass my ‘does it look right?’ test. And the source, Education and Work, which is conducted each May, has a history of rogue results. It is a sample survey of Australian residents rather than being derived directly from enrolment data. The further users drill down into Education and Work sub-categories – gender, type of enrolment, age group etc – the less reliable it gets (the ABS is upfront about this, and publishes relative standard errors).

Last November I used the TableBuilder version of Education and Work (expensive paywall; university staff can use it) to exclude international students. That caused the female decline in enrolments to go way and became a small increase, although with a narrowing of the gender gap. In 2019 Education and Work reported 1.5 female students for every 1 male student, which declined to 1.42 to 1 in 2020.

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Should ‘first in family’ be an equity group?

Australian higher education equity policy and analysis tends towards cultural explanations of differences in higher education participation rates. The official definition of low socio-economic status is based on the ABS Index of Education and Occupation, not direct financial factors. Parental education and occupation provides a role model for their children and shapes the expectations parents have for their children. University-educated parents can also more easily help their children navigate the path to university.

The relationship between parental education and child outcomes has occasionally led to suggestions that ‘first in family’ – the children of parents who have not been to university – should be an official equity group. There was another such call in an article in The Conversation last week, based on a recent academic journal article by Sally Patfield, Jenny Gore, and Natasha Weaver.

Is first in family at university unusual?

Although the data is rarely released, parental education has been in the official enrolment data collection since 2010. In some figures I have from 2015, of the students who reported parental education first in family were just in the majority, at 50.1 per cent. But the true number was probably significantly higher, with don’t knows or missing data from about 15 per cent of enrolments. At minimum these students had parents who did not regale them with ‘when I was at uni’ anecdotes, blocking one path of influence on educational choices.

If we think back on the history of higher education first in family could never have been unusual. With each generation experiencing much higher participation rates than the one before it, large numbers of students must have had parents who didn’t go to university. According to figures in Anderson and Vervoon’s Access to Privilege, at Melbourne University in the 1960s and 1970s around a quarter of the fathers and 10 per cent of mothers of students had a university qualification – high for the era, but still leaving a big majority of students as ‘first in family’.

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Youth Allowance and course completion

The annual cohort completions statistics published by the Department of Education show that low SES students complete courses as lower rates than medium or high SES students. On the most recent figures 67 per cent of low SES commencing students had completed a degree by nine years after commencement. The equivalent figures were 72 per cent for medium SES students and 78 per cent for high SES students.

Youth Allowance and completion rates

In analysing the factors affecting completion, a Department of Education data integration project joins higher education enrolment variables with other government data, including income and student income support.

Their analysis suggests, as seen in the chart below, that receipt of Youth Allowance or Austudy is associated with increases in completion at the six-year point for students in all but the most advantaged areas, with the largest effects for students living in areas with the greatest levels of economic disadvantage.*

The analysis of the results is quite brief, making it hard to fully understand the effects of student income support. If I understand them correctly, they have controlled for full- or part-time study status. However, I would see getting students to study full-time as a major benefit of student income support. In the Grattan Institute dropping out analysis, studying part-time is the single biggest completion risk, and this is supported by the Department’s analysis, which includes additional variables Grattan did not have.

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Recurrent critiques, concerns and crises in Australian higher education

In a previous post on Gwil Croucher and James Waghorne’s Australian Universities: A History of Common Cause, I noted a range of significant changes in Australian higher education over the last century. This post looks at recurrent themes.

Debate about the purpose(s) of the university

From the start Australia’s universities served multiple purposes, with on-going tensions between knowledge for its own sake, typically most strongly supported by academics, and meeting practical needs, typically most strongly supported by governments.

At the 1920 meeting that Croucher and Waghorne mark as the start of a national organisation of universities, University of Sydney Chancellor Sir William Cullen warned against ‘adopting too enthusiastically the current preoccupation with ideas of “national efficiency”‘.

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Key differences between Australian and British higher education: regional versus national markets and institutions

In two previous posts on higher education parallels between Britain and Australia, prompted by reading Peter Mandler’s book on Britain, I also noted that there were some important differences, which this post explores.

National versus regional systems

Mandler argues that in Britain a national higher education system emerged out of a ‘patchwork of institutions dating back to the middle ages’. Although local funding has been part of higher education finance in Britain, national funding was more significant early in the 20th century, and dominated the post-WW2 expansion of higher education. Universities were linked in a common funding system.

As a recent book by Gwil Croucher and James Waghorne explains, in Australia state governments were significant funders of higher education until the national government took over in 1974. Laws regulating the foundation of universities were state-based until 2011, although agreements between the states created a high degree of uniformity from 2000.

In Britain, free higher education from 1962 and a means-tested maintenance (income support) grant helped universities recruit nationally. Britain had a national applications and admissions system from 1961. However, devolution in the UK means that there are now differences in higher education finance between jurisdictions.

Free or consistently-priced undergraduate education across Australia since 1974, along with means-tested student income support, has not fundamentally changed the largely regional nature of Australian higher education. Most students attend universities in their state, and usually in their home city. Australia’s admission systems remain state-based.

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What’s changed in a century of Australian higher education?

Gwil Croucher and James Waghorne’s Australian Universities: A History of Common Cause is an easy-to-read history of Australian higher education, told with attention to the history of university peak bodies. Universities Australia commissioned the book to mark the centenary of the regular meetings of university leaders that began in 1920.

The Australian university system in 2020 is in many ways very different from what it was in 1920. But despite the transformations some issues recur repeatedly over the decades, which I will discuss further in a later blog post. I will start with what has changed the most, prompted by the Croucher and Waghorne book, but adding other material and my own take on events.

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A farewell to arts?

I am on a panel discussion this evening called ‘A Farewell to Arts? On the Morrison Government’s University Legislation’. I will do my preparation in public via this blog post, working through the event questions.

Why does the Morrison Government want to dissuade students from enrolling in an Arts degree? [A reference to more than doubled student contributions.]

As the policy name ‘Job-ready Graduates’ suggests, the main stated reason for changes to student contributions is to promote graduate employment outcomes. Or as the JRG discussion paper puts it ‘incentives in the current funding system could encourage sub-optimal choices for students and institutions, leading to poorer labour market outcomes and returns on investment in higher education.’ The assumption is that if arts becomes more expensive students will instead choose a course with lower student contributions and better employment prospects.

Employment outcomes can be measured in many ways, but every method shows that graduates in fields typically taught in Arts faculties are at an elevated risk of disappointing outcomes.

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