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Academic freedom for whom?

By Katharine Gelber - posted Friday, 4 July 2008

Anti-intellectualism has recently changed tack in Australia. We have a new battle; academics fending off accusations that we are biased. Apparently we’re not educators, we’re indoctrinators. What a powerful charge!

J’accuse”, they say. “I think you’re biased because I disagree with you. Therefore you must be biased. And bias is bad; very, very bad.”

The Young Liberals accuse us of bias by stating our viewpoints in class, and by implying further that academics will mark down students with whom they disagree (The Australian, HES, March 12, 2008).


If it wasn’t all so serious it would be laughable. After all, how can anyone accuse academics of indoctrination given the singular failure of higher learning institutions during the last decade and a half to churn out graduates capable of effecting changes to policies with which we (left-wing academics, that is) wholeheartedly disagreed. Foreign policy? No. Health funding? No. Environmental policy? No.

But it is serious. We now apparently have an enquiry into academic freedom which is to be conducted by the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Committee.

The committee’s terms of reference, as set out in parliament by Senator Fifield who instigated the inquiry, are: to investigate the current level of academic freedom in school and higher education, with particular reference to the level of intellectual diversity and the impact of ideological, political and cultural prejudice in the teaching of senior secondary education and of courses at Australian universities, including the content of curricula and course materials and the conduct of teachers and assessments.

The committee is also to investigate the need for accuracy, fairness and “balance” in content, and the promotion of intellectual diversity and “contestability of ideas” (The Australian, HES, June 25, 2008).

This is serious stuff indeed. The very same committee which is to investigate balance and prejudice is simultaneously tasked with promoting academic freedom. This seems like a bit of an oxymoron to me. Find out if we’re prejudiced, and simultaneously protect us from intellectual intrusion. Surely the former constitutes the latter? Doesn’t the inquiry itself, at least in the terms in which it is currently set out, risk academic freedom and intellectual enquiry?

In a classic example of a “chilling” effect, it is highly likely that the announcement of the enquiry combined with the anti-intellectual campaign of the Young Liberals will curb academic freedom of expression before the inquiry has even begun.


And the inquiry begs another question. What do Senator Fifield and his colleagues believe academic freedom to mean?

In the normal course of an academic’s duties she or he is expected to teach a diverse group of students. Some subjects are less overtly political - medicine, for example, or accounting, where a right answer is clearly right and a wrong answer is clearly wrong. I hope my doctor and accountant know the difference between a right answer and a wrong answer.

In other subjects the content is very overtly political. I teach politics. Everything I teach is political. Now, what would constitute behaviour that is “biased” in teaching my courses? Would it constitute “bias” if I told the students in advance what my personal political beliefs were in relation to issues we were discussing? Would it constitute “bias” if I didn’t tell the students in advance what my personal political beliefs were?

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About the Author

Dr Katharine Gelber is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of New South Wales. She is currently engaged in an ARC-funded research project into freedom of speech in Australia, and is a Visiting Fellow, Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law, University of New South Wales.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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