Should higher education providers have double academic freedom regulation?

Last week the government released a new legal definition of academic freedom and freedom of speech on campus for consultation,  following a recommendation made by the French review of free speech in Australian higher education. The new legal definitions align with a model university-level policy that French supported and the education minister, Dan Tehan, has been encouraging universities to adopt. I have reservations about the wording that I have explained in another blog post. This post is a more technical one about the definition’s role in the higher education regulatory structure.

The new academic freedom definition would apply to the Higher Education Support Act 2003  (HESA) which is the funding legislation, and the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Act 2011, which is the main academic legislation. Amendment of the TEQSA legislation, and the consequent changes to the Higher Education Threshold Standards, are the more significant.

To be registered at all by TEQSA, a higher education provider would need to have a clearly articulated higher education purpose that includes a commitment to and support for freedom of speech and academic freedom (currently ‘free intellectual inquiry’). A subsequent section places responsibility on the provider’s governing body to ‘develop and maintain an institutional environment in which freedom of speech and academic freedom is upheld and protected’ (currently ‘freedom of intellectual inquiry’).Read More »

Do students have academic freedom? (And other issues with the proposed legal definition of ‘academic freedom’)

The Government is planning to amend the Higher Education Support Act and the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Act to strengthen campus protections of academic freedom and freedom of speech. Last week it released for consultation a new legal definition of academic freedom.

While I strongly support freedom of speech and academic freedom (and have a newly-acquired personal vested interest in academic freedom), I have reservations about the proposed definition.

The French review of freedom of speech in Australian higher education, which is the basis of the proposed amendments, recognised that freedom of speech and academic freedom are related but distinct concepts. But the proposed legal definition blurs them.Read More »

Universities might still be caught in the campaign finance net

A Commonwealth campaign finance bill introduced late last year was strongly opposed by the university and broader NGO sectors. Most organisations commenting on a federal political issues were going to have to report on their donations and implement  highly bureaucratic systems to prevent ‘foreign’ donations to political causes. The bill would also have affected think-tanks such as the Grattan Institute, where I work.

The bill’s overly broad definition of political activity — public expression of views on an issue in an election by any means and/or public expression of views on a political party, MP or candidate by any means — was a longstanding problem in the law. I wrote a paper about it nearly a decade ago. Compared to the existing rules, the bill slightly improved on the status quo by creating some exceptions, including expressing views solely for genuine academic purposes. But in practice, the new campaign finance regulations were likely to lead to a much worse state of affairs than now.

Under the old regime, the AEC did not enforce the letter of the law.  Only organisations engaged in traditional campaign activities ever complied, and nobody was punished for not submitting the required reports on political expenditure and donations. During debate over the government’s bill it became clear that many NGOs in technical breach of the current law had no idea that it existed. But now they know, and MYEFO gave the AEC extra funds to implement the government’s ‘electoral integrity reforms’. That money could be used to increase compliance.

After near-unanimous opposition to its original bill, the government released a draft revision for comment. This seems to have satisfied Universities Australia, but I am not convinced that, despite its improvements, that universities should support the bill in its current form. Read More »

Ministers should not choose research projects

Senator Kim Carr has been around forever, and knows what questions to ask in Senate Estimates. And yesterday he got the Australian Research Council to reveal that, last year, then education minister Simon Birmingham rejected 11 humanities grant recommendations. So far as we know, this hasn’t happened since Brendan Nelson was minister in the middle of the last decade (Gideon Haigh tells that story well).

As with the Nelson intervention, Birmingham’s decision has prompted outrage. The Australian Academy of the Humanities says that “this interference is entirely at odds with a nation that prides itself on free and open critical enquiry.”

Birmingham’s response is, in effect, that the rejected projects are not worth funding. On Twitter, he says “I‘m pretty sure most Australian taxpayers preferred their funding to be used for research other than spending $223,000 on projects like ‘Post orientalist arts of the Strait of Gibraltar.'”

He could have picked several other examples: “beauty and ugliness as persuasive tools in changing China’s gender norms”, “music, heritage and cultural justice in the post-industrial legacy city” or “Soviet cinema in Hollywood before the blacklist, 1917-1950”.

But that Australian taxpayers were probably not going to get value for money from these very niche projects is not the same as an argument for rejecting an ARC recommendation. Read More »