What can the government do about student associations and free speech?

The Australian this morning reports that ‘Education Minister Alan Tudge is considering cutting off funding to student organisations that ¬≠attempt to stop the airing of views they oppose on campus.’ The trigger is an issue with the ANU student association, and whether an anti-abortion group and the ADF should be able to set up stalls at the association’s market day.

As is usual in these cases, the facts are not entirely clear. The student newspaper Woroni quotes the student association’s social officer as saying the groups were excluded. But the association told The Australian that the groups did not apply and therefore no application from them has been rejected.

Either way, ‘Mr Tudge told The Australian he was considering ways to block student unions that impede free speech from taking compulsory student fees which fund their services on campus, and tying them to a model code of free speech that now applies only to university administrators and staff.’

How can student unions be regulated?

As the minister’s statement acknowledges, if a student union is a separate legal entity to the university it is not automatically covered by the academic freedom and freedom of speech definitions added to the Higher Education Support Act 2003 earlier this year. The government may try to extend freedom of speech provisions to student unions.

The current freedom of speech law is based on applying conditions to grants rather than direct regulation. As student unions don’t receive grants this mechanism cannot be used for them.

While the government does not directly fund student associations, this year the Commonwealth has lent students about $130 million through the SA-HELP scheme to pay their amenities fees.

There is no current power to attach additional conditions to SA-HELP loans, but this could be considered.

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The hardline voluntary student union option, and other things from the latest release of Cabinet papers

As in 2019, this year’s 1 January release of old Cabinet papers reveals new details about the Coalition’s internal debates about higher education. However, this time I am less of a disinterested observer, as the 1998 and 1999 papers made public today include the time when I was higher education adviser to the then education minister, Dr David Kemp.

There are several topics discussed – the government’s response to the West review of higher education, voluntary student unionism, and the 1999-2000 Budget. For me the common thread, apart from the portfolio area, is Dr Kemp’s efforts to maintain, despite competing fiscal and political pressures,¬† the policy and political conditions needed for an intellectually coherent higher education policy. He was headed to a major higher education reform Cabinet submission later in 1999 (not in this official release, but it was leaked twenty years ago).

When the Howard government came to office in 1996 its first priority was bringing the Budget back into balance. In higher education, this led to cuts to per student subsidies in higher education with offsetting increases in HECS charges, cuts to student places, and a reduced income threshold for repaying HECS debt.

As I have observed before, often the Coalition ends up with not so much a higher education policy as a fiscal policy with implications for higher education. But in 1996 they knew that quickly-made budget-driven decisions were not the basis of long-term policy, and commissioned a broader examination of higher education policy, which turned into the West review. (One of my tasks as a ministerial adviser was liaising with its chair, Roderick West, a retired school headmaster with no public policy experience. The technocrats were running rings around him, but you have to admire someone who can incorporate quotations from ancient Greeks and Romans into an Australian government policy report, as he did in his chairman’s foreword.)Read More »