The government is mounting a campaign to resurrect freedom of expression in Australian universities. Throughout history, academics have been punished for questioning fashionable orthodoxy. In the 21st-century West, they enforce it by silencing dissent and ostracising dissenters.
Australian university leaders seem not to care much for freedom of speech as a universal right. They willingly ignore the historical fact that when the suppression of dissent becomes state law and institutional policy, democracy dies.
The government is taking a fresh approach to liberating higher education from its orthodox rut. It commissioned an independent review into free speech on campus led by University of Western Australia chancellor Robert French. Major recommendations include that each higher education provider has "a policy that upholds freedom of speech and academic freedom". A model code is recommended to extend the principle of freedom to all forms of expression, including art and music.
The government is emphasising the importance of freedom of expression and the case made by French across 300 pages is difficult to refute. Lest it be seen as meddling with university autonomy, the Coalition has made the model code voluntary. It is a leap of faith and, I believe, an error of judgment.
The ivory tower is a bastion of orthodoxy protected by billions in taxpayer funding. Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan has revealed universities will receive a record $17 billion funding this year. As such, he thinks they should take some responsibility for their impact on Australian culture.
The argument makes sense in light of recent higher education reforms. As education minister, Julia Gillard commissioned a major review of tertiary education. The Labor government adopted two key targets from the Bradley review: at least 40 per cent of 25 to 34-year-old Australians will have a bachelor degree or above by 2025 and students from low socio-economic status backgrounds will comprise 20 per cent of enrolments at undergraduate level.
When universities are funded by Australians to educate 40 per cent of the young population, they should recognise the reciprocal responsibility to educate them well. A part of that responsibility is creating a culture where students learn that mastering the exercise of freedom is essential to becoming a good democratic citizen.
To date, Labor has been far more effective than the Coalition at leading cultural change, usually by embedding institutional reforms in legislation. For example, the Bradley review ushered in major structural changes, many embedded in law. By contrast, the Coalition has struggled to make higher education reforms stick. Spending cuts proposed during Tony Abbott's time were blocked by a recalcitrant Senate.
More recently, the government's withdrawal of public funding for inconsequential humanities research was broadly criticised. University executives joined Labor to condemn the veto of funding for projects such as rioting and the literary archive, and Soviet cinema in Hollywood before the black list. University of NSW president and vice-chancellor Ian Jacobs accused former education minister Simon Birmingham of unjustified action. UNSW deputy vice-chancellor for research Nicholas Fisk said: "It is distressing for ... the academic community ... to learn that research proposals selected on the basis of excellence were shunned for no apparent reason." Other university leaders said the Coalition had undermined academic autonomy and free speech.
While Coalition calls to reform campus culture are welcome, the historical tendency of university leaders to adopt cultural bias against freedom of speech is well known.
In Britain and US, the documented history of left-wing bias on campus goes back decades. The left began to march against Western civilisation and conservatism in the 1960s. Since then, numerous attempts have been made to reform political correctness on campus without success. However, the recent adoption of the Chicago statement on free speech by more than 60 universities in the US has inspired hope in Australia.
The French review recommendations may not be met with the same enthusiasm as the Chicago principles. There is no Australian equivalent of organisations such as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education or Campus Watch dedicated to disseminating insider news about the prevalence and harm of politically correct bigotry in universities. As a result, there is less public pressure mounted on politicians to challenge it. We also lack the constitutional imperative for protecting freedom of expression as a patriotic duty. Thus, the Prime Minister would not have the ready justification available to US President Donald Trump when he issued an executive order on free inquiry in universities earlier this year.
Tehan has started his campaign to resurrect freedom on campus by trying to reason with chancellors and vice-chancellors. He has assured sector leaders that the government will protect their autonomy while advocating for greater accountability in respect of core democratic freedoms.
However, there is no financial incentive for vice-chancellors to challenge faculty orthodoxy and no punishment for allowing it to continue. And some university executives have been involved in what many perceive as the punishment of dissenting speech.
After the Federal Court upheld physics professor Peter Ridd's right to intellectual freedom, the management of James Cook University issued a statement. It claimed that Ridd had "engaged in serious misconduct, including denigrating the university and its employees and breaching confidentiality directions regarding the disciplinary processes". On the face of it, Ridd's major transgression was to call into question orthodox environmentalist beliefs. If the Federal Court cannot convince university leaders about the importance of protecting intellectual freedom, who can?
The government is facing a great challenge in trying to liberate free speech from the chains of PC orthodoxy on campus. There will be no lasting change to freedom of expression in Australian universities until it is legislated at a federal level with quantifiable targets that are tied to funding.
The principal reason to protect free speech on university campuses is to nourish democracy for generations to come. Freedom of speech is a means and an end. It is the foundation of public reason that makes human progress possible. We must defend it or we will lose the battle for democracy.
Dr Jennifer Oriel is a columnist with a PhD in political science. She writes a weekly column in The Australian.