Academic Freedom in Australia


Recently in Australia, there has been some media coverage of a Senate Committee that the Liberal opposition has established to investigate the issue of academic freedom. In an apparent emulation of Campus Watch set up in the United States, the Young Liberals have been developing a list of examples of apparent ‘far-left’ bias. Their submission to the Senate Committee outlines their major concerns, listing examples of those academics who are involved in radical left politics, photos from university campuses that support their position, extracts from course guides and descriptions of courses that demonstrate "the extent to which radical leftist viewpoints dominate the curriculum." [1]
 
Unfortunately, rather than an attempt to ensure academic freedom, their submission is more of a poorly researched and developed witch-hunt. Having admitted that the research for the submission involved him using Google, the campaign director of Make Education Fair, Nigel Freitas has shown the level of academic scrutiny given to this submission, with a number of errors and extreme bias evident.
 
Although I am not interested in thoroughly critiquing each part of the submission, a quick review shows a number of problems. Firstly, a list of academics who are also activists for far-left causes is provided. There is no doubt that the academics listed could be described as being from the left of politics, with many actively supporting Socialist Alternative and other leftist groups. What is not evident from this survey is how this affects their teaching. Just because an academic vocally supports causes which could be described as ‘leftist’ does not, on the face of it, impact on their teaching. Further, it would not be difficult to develop a similar list of academics who advocate for ‘rightist’ causes, or who are members of the Liberal Party. This is not necessarily an issue with these academics, but it does show an extreme, but not unexpected bias in the submission.
 
The second section of the submission provides a number of photos of campuses around Australia that supposedly demonstrates the intolerance that exists on campus. I don’t doubt that a number of posters put on campuses support progressive movements, but there are also a number that don’t, either supporting centrist or conservative positions. Again, I am sure that it would be possible to take just as many photos of these posters, but I am not sure how this impacts upon academic freedom. What the Young Liberals appear to be supporting is a restriction on which posters are allowed to be put up on university campuses, something that appears to be the antithesis of academic freedom.
 
The next section of the submission analyses a number of course guides to demonstrate a political bias. Included in this are scans of a textbook that is required reading for a course in law, economics and business ethics. Sections of this book that supposedly show this bias are highlighted, including a section that reads:
Amongst political theories, it is the revolutionary communism of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky that calls for the most radical dismantling of capitalist private property and the capitalist state. The plan calls for the creation of a socialist or workers state (as owner and controller of productive resources) as a necessary intermediate step to a future, state-less communist society.
 
Now, I’m not sure what the problem with this section is. Yes, it talks about Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, and their wish for the dismantling of capitalism, but I can not see what is biased about the statement, it is completely true! How else is an author meant to present the views of Marx and others. Again, it appears that the Young Liberals are more interested in ensuring that students do not hear about important social theories that they do not agree with, rather than ensuring that academic freedom is upheld.
 
In this section, the submission also shows the reading lists of a few courses at the University of Sydney, including ‘International Business and Politics’. Next to each of the suggested readings, the Young Liberals have said whether it is ‘pro-globalisation’ or ‘anti-globalisation’. It is true, that in such a contentious topic different authors present quite different perspectives, however, it appears that the researchers haven’t bothered to even us Google very well. Two of the readings listed as ‘anti-globalisation’ are chapters 5 and 6 from Thomas Friedman’s Lexus and the Olive Tree. If there is one author that is definitely not against globalisation, it is Thomas Friedman, who has been one of the biggest popular cheerleaders for the process. Including chapters from his book as examples of anti-globalisation, the Young Liberals have demonstrated a complete lack of research skills, and even worse, have massively misrepresented the position of an author.
 
Another author that the Young Liberals has listed as ‘anti-globalisation’ is Joseph Stiglitz, and his book, Globalization and its discontents. There is no doubt that Stiglitz does not support the current version of globalisation, but surely, if an academic is to present a balanced view of the globalisation debate, the work of someone who has won the Nobel Prize in Economics and has been Senior Vice President and Chief Economist of the World Bank is invaluable to students.
 
Lastly, as with the other parts of this submission, it is very easy to find examples of a supposed ‘rightist’ or ‘mainstream’ bias. For example, looking at the reading list for a course of the history of economic theory at the same university, the names of Keynes and Smith come up in the reading list, but there is no mention of Marx. I’m not suggesting that the academic teaching this course needs to teach Marx, although even mainstream journalists have been talking recently of his work in relation to the current financial crisis, but what it does show is that it is possible to find courses where the leftist position appears to be completely disregarded.
 
The last section of the submission looks at course descriptions that ‘exhibit bias.’ For example, in a course on activism and public policy, they will examine the women’s, environmental, lesbian and gay rights and anti-capitalist movements, while in ‘Introduction to Feminism’ students will look at feminist thought and feminism. The question is, what else would you be expecting to study if you enrolled in these courses? It is also not the case that for the vast majority of these courses, students are required to enrol, most are electives. If a students is not interested in learning about these issues, they are free to not enrol.
 
When looking at the submission, it is evident that academic freedom is not at the heart of the Young Liberals’ concerns, rather, it is a wish to ensure that academic freedom does not exist on Australian university campuses. It is vital that academic freedom exists, so that students and academics have the opportunity to argue their point of view without fear of retribution – such as having the name and teachings dismissed by a political group in a submission to a parliamentary inquiry. It is important to ensure that teachers do not dismiss the views of their students if they do not agree with them, but there is nothing in this submission that suggests that this is happening. Other submissions to the inquiry outline times when this may have happened, but even at these times it is important to remember that the teacher may be playing the devil’s advocate in an attempt to help the student expand on their thoughts. Systematic bias against a student or academic because of their political views has no place in the university system. Further, the submission by the Young Liberals should be dismissed as nothing more than a witch-hunt against those academics with which they disagree, and be seen as nothing more than an attempt to reduce academic freedom on Australian campuses.
 

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