Uni sector reaffirms its longstanding commitment to foundational freedoms

The peak body for Australia’s universities is pleased to reaffirm the university sector’s enduring commitment to freedom of expression and academic freedom.

The Board of Universities Australia today reaffirmed its abiding commitment to these founding principles of universities — and noted the careful work being undertaken by member universities to consider the model code proposed by former High Court Chief Justice Robert French.

Universities Australia Chair Professor Deborah Terry said “freedom of expression and academic freedom go to the heart of what our universities do. They are fundamental to how we operate.”

“This is why Mr French’s proposed model code is being given careful attention by our universities to ensure the robustness of their frameworks for free speech and academic freedom.”

At each university, Vice-Chancellors and Chancellors are working through these materials and giving these matters careful attention in preparation for discussions by their governing councils.

“Once again, we express our thanks to Mr French for the care and rigour reflected in his report and proposed model code.”

Last November, in a joint statement, Vice-Chancellors from all 39 member universities reaffirmed their commitment to the enduring principles of academic freedom and freedom of expression on campuses and amongst their students and staff.

They declared that “Australian universities foster vigorous debate and encourage the contest of ideas in a respectful, professional and courteous manner” and vowed to continue to promote a “thriving culture of debate and speech”.

The 2018 statement built on the 2008 Universities Australia statement on academic freedom and the need to ensure teaching and research remains free of external interference. It declared:

“Universities have a special role as institutions dedicated to free, open and critical expression across the full scope of human knowledge and endeavour. Central to this role is the freedom of staff and students to teach, research, debate and learn independent of external political circumstance and pressure.”

The previous statements have also noted that these freedoms apply in the context of Australian law, which prohibits hate speech, discrimination and incitement to violence.

University students, staff and speakers are, of course, subject to these wider laws, like the rest of the Australian population.

Professor Terry said Australia’s universities have been on the public record through the decades affirming our commitment to informed evidence-based discussion and vigorous debate.

“As institutions, we nurture the skills of our students to debate ideas, develop their critical thinking skills and engage with a wide array of views — including those with which they agree and those with which they disagree,” she said.

“The skill of being able to engage in vigorous debate without suspending courtesy is one that our students will need if they are to succeed in the workplace and the world.”

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