Alan Tudge
Alan Tudge (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

The Morrison government has introduced new laws which Minister for Education and Youth Alan Tudge says will “protect academic freedom and freedom of speech” at universities.

The bill amends the Higher Education Support Act to insert the terms “freedom of speech” and “academic freedom”. It also adopts a longer definition of academic freedom proposed by former High Court chief justice Robert French.

All in all, it’s some relatively trivial tinkering — “not highly significant”, Australian National University higher education expert Andrew Norton said. And it means that a long-running culture war over free speech on campus ends with something of a whimper.

That battle really kicked off in 2018, after a series of reactionary speakers, most prominently men’s rights activist Bettina Arndt, were met with protests at campuses. Those protests angered conservative media, and newly minted education minister Dan Tehan, who shelved a proposed taskforce into sexual assault on campuses to focus on the classic culture war issue of free speech at universities.

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Despite universities insisting there was no real problem on campus, Tehan got French to do a review, which in turn found that “claims of a freedom of expression crisis are unsubstantiated”.

French’s wasn’t the only report either, with former Deakin University vice chancellor Sally Walker conducting a probe last year into the extent to which universities aligned with a model code for protecting academic freedom proposed by French.

Still, why this amendment now? It all comes back to Pauline Hanson. Last year, the government was adamant about passing funding changes which would charge students more for arts degrees, for some reason (despite the fee hikes, demand for humanities subjects has grown).

To pass the bill, they needed One Nation’s senate votes, and Hanson’s price was implementing a new definition of academic freedom.

At the time, Innovative Research Universities claimed the now legislated definition of academic freedom was unnecessary, and could protect employers airing racist or sexist views.

Meanwhile, universities have lost an estimated 17,000 jobs since the pandemic began last year, after they were frozen out of the JobKeeper package.