Universities have recently been described as a contemporary battleground over the boundaries of the debates, discussions and collaboration that are essential to the idea of a university. The description has been true for a long time in a number of places. There was no golden age when the scope of freedom of speech and academic freedom in the higher education sector was settled under a common consensus. However, public airing of concerns about both in Australian universities has led to this Review. The Review covers higher education providers generally, but the focus is on universities where the debate seems to have been most acute.
Contention about freedom of speech and academic freedom — what they mean and what are their limits — has varied in content and intensity from time to time depending upon political and social issues of the day. The protagonists are often motivated by differing ideological or political world views.
Recent events in the United States involving protests against and cancellation of visits by speakers to campus were described by one writer as ‘part of the latest front in the culture wars’. An administrator at the University of California at Berkeley, speaking after the cancellation on safety grounds of a visit by Milo Yiannopoulos, associated with the right- wing ‘Breitbart News’, said ‘[i]t feels like we’ve become the O K Corrall for the Hatfields and McCoys of the right and left.’ So called ‘right’ and ‘left’ perspectives have informed debate in Australia. From the available evidence however, claims of a freedom of speech crisis on Australian campuses are not substantiated.
That said, there is a range of diverse and broadly framed institutional rules, codes and policies covering a variety of topics which leave room for the variable exercise of administrative discretions and evaluative judgments. These are capable of eroding the fundamental freedom of speech and that freedom of speech which is an essential element of academic freedom. That fact constitutes a risk to those freedoms and makes the sector an easy target for criticism.
The answer to those concerns is not increased government regulation. Existing legislative and statutory standards are pitched at a level of generality which allows for choice in how their requirements are met. They respect institutional autonomy which is a dimension of academic freedom. However, the relevant Higher Education Framework (Threshold Standards) 2015 (HE Standards) could be clarified by changing their subject matter from ‘free intellectual inquiry’ to ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘academic freedom’ and inserting a workable definition of the essential elements of academic freedom.
The principal recommendation emerging from this Report is that protection for the freedoms be strengthened, within the sector, on a voluntary basis by the adoption of umbrella principles embedded in a Code of practice for each institution. Such a Code could be adopted across the sector collectively or by individual institutions with or without modification. It is not proposed that it be imposed by statute on universities or higher education providers generally. The Model Code has been drafted so that its adoption by any higher education provider should comply with the relevant statutory standards, as presently existing, or if amended as proposed.
It is important that the institutional autonomy of universities in particular and higher education providers generally be retained. They should, so far as possible, keep control of their own affairs. Their controllers include the governing bodies, executive managers, academic boards and student representative bodies, along with the body of staff and students as participatory members. The Model Code proposal, together with cognate amendments to the Higher Education Support Act 2003 (Cth) (HES Act) and the HE Standards are offered as a means of protecting and enhancing participatory institutional autonomy and the freedoms it should serve.