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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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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The social and political causes of increasing educational participation from the 1980s

In my previous blog post, a discussion of Australian educational trends inspired by Peter Mandler’s post-WW2 history of education in Britain, I finished in the 1970s, a rare period of decline in school completion and university participation rates.

School completion increases again

Whatever the reasons for 1970s educational trends, in the 1980s rates of school completion rapidly increased, as the chart below shows. According to Simon Marginson’s book Educating Australia, increasing the proportion of students completing Year 12 was a deliberate policy goal, supported by state governments and the Commonwealth.

With these older teenagers, in the 1980s compulsion was not a politically acceptable policy tool for increasing school retention. As recently as 2007 in Victoria and 2009 in NSW the school leaving age was still only fifteen. Incentives were needed. According to Marginson, the Commonwealth significantly extended income support for secondary school students, with recipient numbers increasing six-fold between 1982 and 1990.

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The rise and then slight fall of school completion and university participation rates in Australia and Britain, 1870s to 1970s

A recent reading highlight for me is Peter Mandler’s The Crisis of the Meritocracy: Britain’s Transition to Mass Higher Education since the Second World War. I reviewed it on the GoodReads site.

Despite its title, Mandler’s book does not neatly belong to either educational merit genre; it neither bemoans the excessive influence of academic ability in allocating social and economic goods, nor laments the decline of academic standards in schools and universities. Instead, its core theme is how changing attitudes, aspirations and expectations drove up British educational participation and attainment after WW2. There are many interesting parallels with Australia.

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