The government’s planned university funding cuts and fee hikes will now come with an added dose of culture war, after the Coalition cut a deal with One Nation to add an academic freedom definition into the proposed bill.
But universities say the definition, taken from former High Court judge Robert French’s review into campus free speech, will make it harder to punish rogue academics, and allow racist and sexist views to escape scrutiny.
What was the French report?
Dan Tehan became education minister in 2018, when loud conservatives were voicing concerns about a “free speech crisis” on university campuses.
They pointed to incidents like protests at the University of Sydney against a planned address by men’s rights activist Bettina Arndt, and the University of Western Australia cancelling a talk by American pundit Quentin van Meter, who has said being transgender is a “delusion”.
Tehan shelved plans for a university sexual assault taskforce to instead prioritise a probe into free speech on campus, dragging French out of retirement.
From the outset, university leaders argued the whole free speech crisis was a beat up. French agreed, with his final report concluding that “claims of a freedom of expression crisis on Australian campuses are not substantiated”.
French’s review also proposed a model code to protect academic freedom — and despite vice-chancellors raising concerns about the necessity for more regulation, all universities have agreed to implement it by the end of the year.
Why add a new definition?
One Nation’s amendment would legislate another of French’s recommendations by adding a new, long definition of academic freedom into the Higher Education Support Act, something the government previously looked into but then dropped.
That definition was attacked by Innovative Research Universities (IRU) as unnecessary, since “academic freedom” is widely understood. IRU also worried it could create employment disputes, and give cover to employees airing racist or sexist views.
Why does One Nation care?
One Nation has long bought into the conspiratorial far-right trope that universities are bastions of sinister cultural Marxism where conservative voices are silenced. As Hanson has said:
“My interest is in putting a stop to this Marxist, left-leaning approach to teaching in our universities and instead, protect educators who teach using methods based on science and facts rather than ideology.”
One Nation’s NSW platform calls for an end to safe spaces and other signs of “left-wing identity politics and post-modernism”.
Hanson and Senator Malcolm Roberts are also deeply obsessed with the case of Peter Ridd, a former James Cook University physicist and climate change denier who was sacked for criticising colleagues’ views on the state of the Great Barrier Reef. Ridd’s unfair dismissal case, a cause celebre for One Nation, Sky News and the Institute of Public Affairs, could end up before the High Court.