This minister isn’t a threat to academic freedom. But what about the next one?

In Senate estimates hearings last week (they only put the transcript up today, large pdf):

Senator MASON [shadow minister for universities] —Andrew Norton wrote an interesting article the other day opposing the establishment of a national regulator. I often agree with Andrew, but can I—
Senator Chris Evans [minister for tertiary education] —I am writing a response so I will send it to you.
Senator MASON—Very good, Minister.

My original article is here, the minister’s response is here.

Evans’ key response to my article is this passage:

Some have claimed that the move to a national regulator is an attempt by the Commonwealth to reach through the university gate to take away the academic freedom that is central to university life. Some have argued that the creation of a national regulator will open the door to political intrusion into universities’ affairs. My view is that precisely the opposite will happen.

Operating at arm’s length from the government of the day, TEQSA will act as a bulwark against inappropriate political inference. I expect that TEQSA will vigorously protect its independence.

The legislation I released last week explicitly prohibits a minister giving directions to an institution, precisely to ensure that regulatory decisions are made free from political interference.

I don’t think Evans is likely to interfere with academic freedom in a politicised way (though the standards he creates will limit what universities can do). My article was about what possibilities TEQSA opens for others who will want to pursue their political agendas through the regulator.

The key regulatory mechanism will be Higher Education Standards Framework, which will include academic standards. Under the TEQSA legislation, the Framework is not made independently of the minister, it is made by minister on the advice of Higher Education Standards Panel, which he or she appoints, and TEQSA, whose senior officers the minister also appoints, and state ministers who have no veto power.

So really we are relying very heavily on ministers (and the cabinets that instruct them) respecting the tradition of academic freedom. The legal mechanisms create some procedures ministers have to follow, but ultimately put the minister in a position of very great power. My judgment is that this is not a risk worth taking.

4 Responses to “This minister isn’t a threat to academic freedom. But what about the next one?

  • 1
    Andrew Elder
    March 4th, 2011 16:45

    What about the prospect of an Australian Sir Howard Davies? Would the reputation of an Australian university be sunk by such a scandal?

  • 2
    Andrew Norton
    March 4th, 2011 17:04

    I don’t think the LSE’s reputation will be sunk. Better the occasional scandal or controversy than Canberra/London bureaucrats making the decisions.

    Australia had 121 Libyan international students in 2009. I’m not sure what they were studying or at which uni.

  • 3
    Roundup 5 March at Catallaxy Files
    March 5th, 2011 07:21

    […] Norton on a potential threat to academic freedom in […]

  • 4
    Peter T
    March 7th, 2011 11:47

    I think the threat is more insidious. TEQSA will take the same line as university administrators, governments and most commentators – that universities are there to train future employees, and that their performance is to be measured (quite how no-one knows) by how well they do this, by some analogy with businesses. That universities are also the key feature of our intellectual commons and that academics there to maintain and develop the intellectual integrity of their various disciplines will be disregarded as too nebulous a concept to be useful. The undeviating pursuit of utility will end as politics (it always does), and the piper will get his way.