Melissa Sweet reported in Crikey on Friday about the University of Queensland’s response when one of its staff exercised his academic freedom to speak about the cervical cancer vaccine, Gardasil. (Read the letters behind the University of Queensland furore here: CSL’s letter of complaint and UQ’s letter to Dr Gunn – page 1/page 2)

In the wake of that, I have drafted the following open letter for Universities Australia, the industry peak body representing the university sector (formerly the AVCC), to send to Julia Gillard as Minister for Education:

Dear Ms Gillard

In the light of recent events regarding Dr Andrew Gunn of the University of Queensland and other matters, we write to enlist your help.

Dr Gunn has been asked by his university’s secretary and registrar to apologise to a drug company in the wake of his having made comments in the media about one of their products. These comments in our view were very reasonable and very clearly in his area of expertise. He was simply exercising his academic freedom.

Crikey reported that the secretary and registrar asked that the apology make clear that the “comments were made by you [Dr Gunn] in your personal capacity and were not endorsed or authorised by the university.”

This statement involves a quite remarkable misunderstanding of the principle of academic freedom in Australian universities.

Under the previous Howard government, as Stuart Macintyre shows, there were various attempts made to stifle academic freedom. We call on the Rudd government to join us in making it clear to all academics and all university administrators that as a society we believe in the principle of academic freedom and ask our academics to exercise such freedom fully but yes responsibly.

We also take the opportunity to draw your attention to the increasing tendency, because of a lack of adequate government financial support, for universities to go to the private sector for funding. This is potentially dangerous as was shown by Christian Downie and Clive Hamilton in their paper on “University Capture” where they traced the very substantial relations between some of our universities and the fossil fuel industry. Given such links how then can we expect these universities to be as critical as they might otherwise be of for example the impact of these industries on global warming? Again many of our universities take research money from pharmaceutical companies despite the fact, as The Guardian indicates, that research funded by the industry is four times more likely to show favourable results than independent research.

As university VCs we understand why some of our universities have gone to these unfortunate lengths to try to stave off the effects of the lack of adequate government funding. So we do not condemn them. But this situation is good for neither high quality research nor for academic freedom (which takes us back to Dr Gunn and his university’s response to his exercising his academic freedom).

We believe that more public funding of our universities is needed and we accept that you have already conceded this. We draw your attention to these added reasons for ensuring that public funding of universities is enhanced.

We also ask however that you assist us on two fronts; first in making it clear to the whole of the academy that you support academics in exercising academic freedom; and secondly that you help us to draw up an ethical code of conduct which would apply commonly to all Australian universities in their funding arrangements with the private sector.

Yours sincerely

Universities Australia