How to protect academic speech

Amend the HE act or rely on enterprise agreements

Last week the Federal Court found in favour of Peter Ridd in his case against James Cook U for sacking him, because, Judge Vasta  concluded, academic speech protections in the university’s enterprise agreement overrode its code of conduct.

Professor Ridd would have been in trouble over his criticism of colleagues’ science if it was the other way around. The explanatory statement to the university’s code of conduct states; “staff must seek to maintain and enhance public confidence in the integrity of the university as a body receiving public funding, and our actions should not adversely affect the good standing of the university,” which seems to CMM to be capable of meaning whatever management wants.

As the French review of  campus free speech puts it, in addressing the generality of statements like this; “These codes raise the question how the effect of an opinion on the ‘reputation’ or ‘prestige’ of the university is to be judged. Is it the vice-chancellor’s view or that of the governing body, or some university official, or a survey of public opinion?”

And even when codes, as statements of university policy, protect academic speech, without such qualifications, (for example, the University of Melbourne’s) they are not necessarily armoured by legally enforceable industrial agreements. When the Uni Melbourne branch of the National Tertiary Education Union wanted an academic freedom comment included in the now adopted enterprise agreement management told CMM, “the university firmly believes that academic freedom is too important to be governed through an industrial agreement,” CMM, August 28 2017).

Of course, academic speech could be included in the Higher Education Support Act Mr French proposes adding clauses to protect academic freedom, including;

* “the freedom of academic staff to teach, discuss, and research and to disseminate and publish the results of their research;

*  the freedom of academic staff and students to engage in intellectual inquiry, to express their opinions and beliefs, and to contribute to public debate, in relation to their subjects of study and research;

* the freedom of academic staff and students to express their opinions in relation to the higher education provider in which they work or are enrolled (and) the freedom of academic staff, without constraint imposed by reason of their employment by the university, to make lawful public comment on any issue in their personal capacities;

However, coalition education minister Dan Tehan was not impressed with Mr French’s idea of amending the act and universities have not spoken up in support.

And so, academics who dispute the research orthodoxy, like Professor Ridd, rely on industrial protections.

As Alison Barnes, national president of the National Tertiary Education Union puts it, “the most important implication of this judgement is that the only real protections for academic freedom in Australia are in the enterprise agreements negotiated by the NTEU. Most universities have policies on academic freedom, but they are completely unenforceable and therefore of very limited value,” (CMM April 18).


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