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Protecting Academic Freedom and University Independence

NTEU’s Statement on Academic Freedom and University Independence is a document intended to be signed by senior Australian university staff.

Freedom of speech is one of the foundations of a democratic society. Intellectual freedom is exercised by public broadcasters, non-government organisations, independent think tanks, government research agencies, and news agencies.

In the context of universities, academic freedom is a right and responsibility of all staff and students and underpins the creation and dissemination of new knowledge. Academic freedom is central to the mission of each university and must not be undermined by commercial activities or government interference.

Simply defined, academic freedom is ‘the freedom to conduct research, teach, speak, and publish, subject to the norms and standards of scholarly inquiry, without interference or penalty, wherever the search for truth and understanding may lead.’ (Global Colloquium of University Presidents)

Unlike in many other countries, academic freedom in Australian universities is not protected by legislation. 

Institutional autonomy – the right to self-regulation without external interference – is an essential condition of academic freedom.  This is not an absolute right and is conditional on universities meeting their legal, performance and accounting requirements and broader social justice objectives, such as equity of access for all Australians.

All Australian governments should respect institutional autonomy and regulate universities only to the extent necessary to ensure they are accountable in the delivery of their teaching, research and community service obligations. 

It would be highly inappropriate for any government to impose conditions on university funding or refuse to fund individual research projects or courses for ideological or arbitrary political reasons. 

We call on the Federal Government to provide legislative protection for academic freedom and institutional autonomy and support words similar to those contained in Ireland’s Universities Act 1997:

“A member of the academic staff of a university shall have the freedom, within the law, in his or her teaching, research and any other activities either in or outside the university, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions and shall not be disadvantaged, or subject to less favourable treatment by the university, for the exercise of that freedom. 

[A university] be entitled to regulate its affairs in accordance with its independent ethos and traditions and the traditional principles of academic freedom, and in doing so it shall have regard to:

(i)  the promotion and preservation of equality of opportunity and access,

(ii)  the effective and efficient use of resources, and

(iii)  its obligations as to public accountability.”

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