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Issue #1876      July 10, 2019

Academic freedoms must be enshrined in law

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) welcomes the core findings of the French Review. It calls on the federal government to legislate to define academic freedom but said that a voluntary code was not sufficient to protect it. The union has called for a statement to be negotiated for inclusion in collective agreements.

The French Review found that while there was no “crisis of free speech” on campuses, it recommended that it was important to strengthen the protections for academics and related staff.

Academic freedom is a defining characteristic of universities and a world class and robust tertiary education sector was critical to Australia’s future.

The right to speak without fear or favour in a place of higher learning is important for our democracy. University staff are aware of incidents of political and funding interference in universities, and attempts to influence research and scholarship.

To the great shame of this sector, there have been at least ten universities recently trying to water down protections for staff regarding academic freedom. Justice French has recommended a voluntary code and changes to legislation.

The union believes that if we are serious about academic freedom, a voluntary code is not good enough, and unless staff have workplace protections in their collective agreements, changes to legislation will not guarantee freedoms.

A voluntary code would not provide the protections necessary for the employment of someone like Professor Peter Ridd from James Cook University, or Roz Ward from Latrobe.

Protections must be binding on an institution and be incorporated into the collective agreement that regulates the employment of staff.

Mathew McGowan
NTEU general secretary

The NTEU National Executive Statement on the French Review follows:

NTEU has a long and proud history of defending academic and intellectual freedom in the higher education sector.

The only effective protections for academic freedom and intellectual freedom of university staff are the relevant clauses in enterprise agreements, negotiated and enforced by NTEU. Australian universities have frequently attempted to water down protections or remove them from legally enforceable agreements, with NTEU the consistent voice defending and protecting academic and intellectual freedom.

NTEU strenuously defends the rights of members who exercise academic and intellectual freedom, including in cases where these individuals have expressed unpopular views, and notes that freedom of speech includes the right to protest.

NTEU therefore welcomes the core findings and recommendations of the Independent Review of Freedom of Speech in Australian Higher Education Providers (known as the French Review). We note the important finding that:

“There is no evidence, on the basis of recent events, which would answer the pejorative description of a ‘free speech crisis’ on campus.”

Nonetheless, we welcome recommendations that have the potential to enhance the protection of academic and intellectual freedom of all university staff and students.

NTEU therefore calls on the federal government to implement the recommendation to amend the existing Higher Education Support Act and the Higher Education Standards to incorporate the definition of academic freedom set out by Justice French, and the recommendation to require all higher education providers to have a policy that upholds freedom of speech and academic freedom.

To give force to the French Review recommendations, NTEU calls upon Universities Australia to negotiate with NTEU an agreed Statement On The Rights And Obligations Of Institutions And Employees Regarding Academic And Intellectual Freedom And Its Protection, for incorporation into collective agreements.

NTEU supports the principles articulated by Justice French in the proposed voluntary code of conduct on academic freedom and freedom of speech and believes that there must be an opportunity provided for all stakeholders to participate in negotiating a binding code of practice.

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