Results of the government’s French Review into campus free speech were published in May. “Claims of a freedom of speech crisis on Australian campuses are not substantiated” was its conclusion. Nonetheless, education minister Dan Tehan has used the review to campaign for the enforcement of a new “model code” for free speech on university campuses, which he accuses of “failing Australia”.
The notion of a university free speech crisis has revolved around two absurd arguments. The first is that student protests are destroying civil liberties. But rallies by students against hard right figures like Bettina Arndt and conservative politicians who have been responsible for slashing their universities’ funding are an expression of free speech, not a violation of it. The draconian proposals mooted by Tehan, on the other hand, such as imposing fines or stricter disciplinary measures on students for engaging in activism, are the real threat to freedom of expression. They involve the use of state power by politicians to intimidate some of their most vocal opponents. It simply does not compare to students protesting against those with power and influence over their lives.
The second absurdity is that a progressive ideological consensus on campuses has stifled the capacity of conservative ideas to gain a hearing. In a recent think piece in the Australian, Tehan painted a picture of a witch-hunt atmosphere on campuses, forcing those who are holders of right-wing views to become “self-censoring out of fear that they’ll be shouted down or condemned for expressing sincerely held views and beliefs, or for challenging widely accepted ideas”.
Notably, this argument is advanced not only by those on the right, but has been echoed by sections of the liberal commentariat. Age journalist Julie Szego recently vented her exasperation at the supposed over-saturation of campuses with progressive ideas, writing, “Anyone who seriously doubts leftist groupthink is stifling campus debate, especially in the humanities, has either avoided hanging around universities or come to love Big Brother ... Is this where we want to be? Devoid of empathy and collegiality? Palpitating in the vaguely menacing silence that descends on a classroom after an edgy joke misfires?”
This characterisation of campus life is ridiculous. Universities are increasingly corporatised entities where chasing profits has led to massive staff cuts, resulting in enormous classes in which there’s often little space for anyone to engage in much debate or discussion at all.
On top of this, funding cuts have led to the serious depletion of departments that espouse a more critical attitude to the existing order. The main growth area in the humanities over the last generation is in “counter-terrorism studies”, hardly a discipline inclined towards leftist group think. And when new funding does appear, it usually comes with political strings attached, such as in the case of the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, which has just been approved by Wollongong University.
But even leaving this aside, the argument that academia is being fettered by progressive ideology is deeply reactionary and anti-intellectual. The development of fields of inquiry that seek to understand and document the experiences of women, LGBTI people and those subject to the horrors of colonialism, slavery, and apartheid, were not just achievements of monumental social struggles, but were also objective markers of progress in human knowledge and understanding. To argue that such endeavours detract from areas that have traditionally ignored these aspects of human experience is akin to accusing a geology department of neglecting the theorists of the Flat Earth Society.
And it is to distract from the draconian incursions on academic freedom that are taking place, and which are a consequence of the embedding of corporate interests in higher education. The National Tertiary Education Union has long raised concerns about “political and funding interferences” in universities, especially relating to research into pharmaceuticals and, increasingly, the arms industry, which is a major commercial player in higher education. These relationships are siphoning universities’ resources away from critical inquiry and into corporate research and development. Melbourne University, for instance, is an official sponsor of the International Mining and Resources Convention, a cornucopia of billionaire tycoons plotting how best to profit from the destruction of the planet. The University of South Australia has just hired former defence minister Christopher Pyne and former Labor premier Jay Weatherill as “industry professors”. Both spent their time in office giving billions in arms contracts to the same private weapons companies that now act as the university’s key industry partners.
The legitimate cause for concern which exists, then, is the powerful corporate interests and their political lackeys, which increasingly determine which avenues of research, inquiry and understanding are open for exploration. This aligns perfectly well with the conservatives’ idea of freedom, but is a development that must be resisted by students with all the incivility and free speaking we can muster.