Freedom of expression and academic freedom go to the heart of what our universities do. They are fundamental to how we operate.
This is why the recent review by former High Court justice Robert French is being given careful attention by our universities right across the country.
In April, federal Education Minister Dan Tehan asked universities to give full and careful consideration to French’s detailed review and to adoption of the model code. And this is what they are doing.
The minister noted the making of regulations and policies by a university was a matter for each institution. Such autonomy is another of the foundational principles of our universities.
The ability of societies to grapple with differences of view and to engage in robust debate with both vigour and respect hinges on how we uphold these principles.
The sector is appreciative of the diligence and care that French brought to the examination of these important matters.
He concluded there was no substantiated evidence of a “crisis” with free speech in our universities. This was a welcome conclusion. Nevertheless, the review’s observations and recommendations require careful and detailed consideration.
In Australia, each university has an interrelated set of policies that give life to such freedoms; set out expectations of staff and student conduct; and establish how these issues will be navigated.
Hence the task of synthesising the observations in French’s 300-page review with the existing complex array of institutional policies and procedures is rightly the province of the leadership and governing bodies of each individual university.
French himself says there are a significant number of policies across the nation’s universities that relate to freedom of speech or academic freedom. To synthesise these with the French review is a complex task. It is important to get it right. It takes time and care to do so.
At each university, vice-chancellors and chancellors are as one as they work through these questions and as they consider the adoption of the proposed model code.
We share an abiding commitment to the ideas and foundational principles that establish our institutions. This was expressed powerfully once again in November last year, when vice-chancellors from our 39 universities issued a joint statement reaffirming an enduring commitment to freedom of expression and academic freedom.
Australia’s universities have been on the public record through the decades affirming our commitment to informed evidence-based discussion and vigorous debate.
As institutions, we nurture the skills of our students to debate ideas, develop their critical thinking skills and engage with a wide array of views — including those with which they agree and those with which they disagree.
The exercise of free speech applies to both proponents and opponents of controversial ideas.
You need only to look to democracy-defending protests around the world to see this in action. Surely the ideal is for a vigorous engagement and contest of ideas, passionately and peacefully expressed.
Under wider Australian law, freedom of speech is not without limitation or caveat. There are, for example, prohibitions on hate speech and discrimination, as well as laws on defamation.
University students and staff are, of course, subject to these wider laws, like the rest of the Australian population.
The skill of being able to engage in vigorous debate without suspending courtesy is one that our students will need if they are to succeed in the workplace and the world.
The French review reminds us that the mission of universities includes responsibility for the maintenance of scholarly standards in teaching, learning and research.
Hence universities teach students to seek out and weigh evidence, test and verify, and to form cogent arguments drawing on that evidence. At the same time, our university researchers keenly examine and respectfully debate ideas, new paradigms, evidence and conclusions.
Universities play a fundamental role in the health of open, democratic societies worldwide. Australia’s universities are ever vigilant in defence of our democratic freedoms.
As published in The Australian on 19 June 2019.