Confucius Institutes creating questions on uni autonomy

The confected controversy adds to conservatives’ assumptions about who is welcome to speak on campus

 Not as bad as assumed: Ideas around last week that universities surrender authority over formal curricula to an agency of the Chinese state are wrong. Certainly, Confucius Institutes are soft-power projecting agencies of the PRC, undoubtedly Beijing expects value for money and for-sure wants to oversight what they teach and by whom. Whether this makes CIs worth having is now a fine-judgement. But the comrades are not controlling accredited courses.

But perception is all: The risk is this that this will be ignored in the coverage of Chinese government connections with university leaderships and pro-PRC students aggressively demonstrating on campus –as occurred on Wednesday at Uni Queensland.

Which is why Universities Australia has reiterated its members comply with the Commonwealth’s Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme.

And why University of Queensland VC Peter Hoj reiterated late Friday that the CI there, “offers classes on Chinese language and culture to interested staff, students and members of the community. It does not teach any degree courses at UQ,” and that “any political pressure from China would be unacceptable.”

A trilogy of conservative causes: Good-o, the problem is that links between universities and agencies of Beijing is but one of three live campus free speech issues which Morrison Government front and back benchers are watching.

Critics (including at Uni Queensland) of the Ramsay Western Civ Centre are fighting to stop it funding degrees, arguing that this would involve surrendering uni autonomy – which looks to conservatives like an attempt to censor what is taught. This may be why Professor Hoj included his university’s continuing negotiations for Ramsay funding in his CI announcement, stating; “the university has made it clear, in relation to both the Confucius Institute and the proposed Ramsay Centre, that our academic freedom and institutional autonomy are not negotiable”.

The third is James Cook U looking to appeal its Federal Court defeat for sacking scientist Peter Ridd, who is critical of climate change research and researchers there. To some government backbenchers this looks like an attempt to deny him his rights to comment as an academic, rights which the court cited in declaring he was dismissed unfairly.

Creating an issue for uni managements: These are entirely unconnected issues but to conservatives they can look like numerous universities palling up with the Chinese Government, staff at some trying to exclude teaching on western civilisation and JCU sacking a researcher for criticising scientific orthodoxy.

And they could all be pulled together in a government policy responding to the French review of campus free speech.

This possibility might account for UA reiterating its oft reiterated point Thursday, that “Australia’s universities … strongly uphold their institutional autonomy and control of curriculum and standards.”

The longer these three separate issues bubble along the more government members will see them in combination, and interpret assertions by universities of their autonomy as a threat to campus free speech for conservatives.


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