Academic freedom is essential to the work of Australian universities. Their role in educating students and advancing human knowledge depends upon academics and students working and learning in an environment in which they can freely exchange ideas, challenge conventional wisdom and debate controversial issues. Indeed, it is hard to see how universities can achieve excellence in research and the development and transfer of knowledge without a significant degree of academic freedom.
Academic freedom is hard to define and can be taken for granted. It also receives little real protection in Australia, something that is more apparent now that the freedom is under threat. This threat includes changes made to the allocation of research funding and the pressure on universities to become more like commercial enterprises to generate income to support their core activities, including activities that are no longer funded by compulsory student union fees.
The threat is also a product of other debates, like how best to protect the community from terrorism. The so-called ‘war on terror’ has led to the erosion of many democratic freedoms, ranging from freedom of association to the right to a fair trial. Academic freedom has also been affected, often incidentally. After all, it is meaningless unless it can be exercised in a society that fosters and protects other important values like freedom of speech.
After exploring what is meant by academic freedom and how it is protected, we examine three current threats to academic freedom: the commercialisation of universities, changes to the Australian Research Council (ARC) and new anti-terrorism laws and policies. We conclude by proposing strategies for how to respond.