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Universities more concerned about brand reputation than freedom

By Gregory Melleuish - posted Wednesday, 19 December 2018

The Institute of Public Affairs has done a sterling job in going through the policies of the various Australian universities and their statements and codes of conduct. The results appear to paint a rather bleak picture of intellectual freedom in our universities.

However, I think the situation may be somewhat more complex than the IPA allows. For example, some universities may not have a policy on academic freedom but the enterprise bargaining agreement of that university protects it.

This raises one of the key issues relating to freedom of speech and academic freedom in universities: the plethora of policies over a whole range of matters, from harassment to misconduct to anti-discrimination.


Many of these policies are less than well framed, and may indeed contradict each other.

Even worse, universities are not particularly good at dealing with the cases that arise from supposed infringements of these policies. As Greg Barns said in this newspaper recently: "My experience of university internal disciplinary processes is that they are unfair, they resemble star chambers and they are run by amateurs."

It is not unknown for fractious individuals on campus to exploit the opaque nature of the rules and to institute vexatious proceedings against those with whom they disagree. Barns, I suspect, is one of many lawyers who make good money out of litigation resulting from the amateur university star chambers.

May I give an example? My daughter gave me a T-shirt stating that there are only two genders. Should I take the risk and wear it to work? My answer is no. I would expect that some ideologically motivated individual would go through the various codes of conduct looking for a basis to lay a complaint against me.

Then I could find myself undergoing some sort of inquisition.

Another complexity is the question of academic freedom. Universities usually understand academic freedom as the right to speak out on topics about which the academic can demonstrate academic expertise.


They are concerned that those speaking out do not identify themselves with the university, especially if they stray into a controversial area. Break those rules and one risks disciplinary procedures.

Why have things become so rigid? One reason is the extra­ordinary increase in bureaucracy, rules and regulations that has ­occurred in Australian universities over the past 25 years.

Another reason is that universities, or at least the senior officials running the universities, no longer understand themselves as scholarly and educational institutions. Vice-chancellors see themselves as CEOs running a business.

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This article was first published in The Australian.

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About the Author

Gregory Melleuish is associate professor of history and politics at University of Wollongong.

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