The current level of academic freedom in school and higher education, with particular reference to:
1. the level of intellectual diversity and the impact of ideological, political and cultural prejudice in the teaching of senior secondary education and of courses at Australian universities, …
2. the need for the teaching of senior secondary and university courses to reflect a plurality of views, be accurate, fair, balanced and in context; and
3. ways in which intellectual diversity and contestability of ideas may be promoted and protected, including the concept of a charter of academic freedoms.
Though there is precedent for the idea of academic freedom for students, I don’t think this is a useful concept, especially not for school students or undergraduates. Their main task is to master a body of knowledge, the content of which is to be determined by those with expertise in the field.
In many disciplines, there will be disputes among experts on some issues. As part of learning their subject, students should be made aware of these disputes and able to take a point of view, within the constraints of scholarly argument. But it is reasonable that students be held within established debates rather than able to claim ‘academic freedom’ to take an idiosyncratic perspective.
The issue here is not the academic freedom of students, but the professionalism of staff. They should make students aware of the relevant debates and not try to force their own views on students by marking down those they disagree with or being rude to them in class.
A stronger focus on professionalism would have saved this inquiry from its current danger of falling into contradiction. The implied threat of interfering with courses that don’t include ‘intellectual diversity’ is not consistent with the traditional freedom of academics to set the curriculum, which has been pretty much untouched as the Commonwealth’s micromanagers descended on almost every other aspect of university operations.
We should never have Senators or Ministers second-guessing what should be taught at universities. But there are legitimate questions, I think, about whether self-accreditation leads to sufficient quality control at universities. This has been a sub-text of Labor statements on university standards over some years, and I would not be surprised if we saw some action on it during the Rudd era. If this inquiry could position itself in broader discussion surrounding quality, it could be more bipartisan than leaving it looking like a witch-hunt for leftist academics.