Do students have ‘academic freedom’?

The Liberal students/Young Liberals Make Education Fair campaign now has a Senate inquiry behind it. The inquiry’s terms of reference include looking into:

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.
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Prospect’s dubious list of top public intellectuals

The trouble with letting survey respondents select themselves is that the results can be very odd. How likely is it, for example, that even though the Muslim world does not have a single university in the world’s top 500, it nevertheless produces all ten of the world’s top ten public intellectuals, according to the latest Prospect public intellectuals poll?

I must confess to not even having heard of seven of the ten. And what has Tariq Ramadan done in the last three years to push him up from 58 to 8?

If we ignore the campaign to get Muslims to vote and delete the top ten, we have the same situation as in 2005 with Noam Chomsky, who apart from his loyal band of leftist followers is not taken seriously outside linguistics, as number one. Al Gore is number two, perhaps reflecting the fashionability of his issue.

Another problem is that the starting point is Prospect‘s list, with half of the top 10 and 17 of the top 50 in 2008 seemingly not even worth considering in 2005.

There is no easy way to conduct polls like this, but perhaps voters having to write in names without a predetermined list would both include intellectuals Prospect missed, and minimise blog-driven campaigns for particular individuals.

Though this is a marketing gimmick for Prospect, even gimmicks need a certain level of credibility. A list of top universities that put, say, Cairo University above Princeton is not going to be taken seriously. Whatever the merits of Fethullah Gülen, he is not the world’s top public intellectual, and Prospect lacks an even semi-plausible public intellectual ranking.

John Howard vs Charles Darwin?

The left used to portray John Howard as hostile to multiculturalism. But as Michael Gawenda points out in today’s Age, while Howard wasn’t so keen on multiculturalism of the subsidies for Bolivian folk dancing variety, he was quite happy with the implicit multiculturalism of religious schools. And conversely (though Gawenda does not say this), while the left liked the multiculturalism of ethnic differences, it was (and is) often quite hostile to religious belief, particularly when reinforced by religious schools.

And few religious beliefs get people more upset than creationism or intelligent design. Gawenda comments that:

Given that some faith-based schools in Australia — unlike schools in the US — teach creationism and the pseudo-science of Intelligent Design as legitimate alternatives to evolutionary theory, how many will mark the Darwin anniversaries [of Charles Darwin’s birth and publication of his evolutionary theory], let alone celebrate them?

In all probability, a significant number won’t. For that John Howard can take some credit. What an irony, given that this was a PM determined to roll back multiculturalism.

But how much does it really matter what ordinary people think about where humans came from? Even most of us who would say we subscribe to Darwin’s theories would not be able to correctly answer even quite basic questions about the evolutionary sequence and how many years ago the the various stages of evolution occurred. I wandered through an exhibition on Darwin only a few weeks ago in Toronto, but I have forgotten already most of what I learnt there.
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The Australian Democrats, RIP

Today the Democrat Senators gave their last speeches, bringing their party’s 31-year parliamentary history to an end. That makes me feel rather old, as I attended one of the first meetings that led to their creation after Don Chipp left the the Liberals in March 1977 (in the days when it was Malcolm Fraser being denounced for abandoning small-l liberalism).

The ‘Committee of Concerned Citizens’ organised a meeting on 9 May 1977 in the Melbourne Town Hall. There were 4,000 people there, including me and my Dad (I was 11), with many more turned away. According to John Warhurst’s book Keeping the Bastards Honest, at the end of the evening Chipp declared himself committed to a new party. I can’t quite remember what I thought of it all, though obviously I was not persuaded to take the micro-party route.

While they won seats up until the 2001 election, the Democrats never found a stable constituency among the ‘concerned’ middle class. The Australian Election Survey questions on which party respondents voted for at the most recent and at the previous election always showed a lot of churn among Democrat voters. People would vote for them, but vote for someone else next time. But until 2004, they always picked up enough of the stray disgruntled vote to win seats.

The 2007 AES suggests that the vast majority of defecting 2004 Democrat voters went to Labor and the Greens, confirming that the party that had been born centrist died leftist. With Labor and Liberal fighting over the middle ground, there was no electoral room for a centre party between them.

Despite their wacky policies on some issues (eg higher education) I’m sorry to see the Democrats go. Politics is less a choice between good and bad than between better and worse, and the Democrats are better than the Greens, Family First, or that no pokies guy from South Australia.

The Australian Democrats, RIP.

Where I was not the lone classical liberal

Apologies for the infrequent blogging of the past few weeks. I’ve been wandering North America – San Francisco, LA, Chicago (including a trip to the University of Chicago, where I certainly would not be the lone classical liberal), Toronto and Montreal – and decided to take a break from blogging, though I could not resist on a couple of occasions.

Of course I have come home to a mountain of work, leave from work being part holiday, part rescheduling. I will resume regular blogging shortly, but it will probably still be light for the next week or so.

Raffles College and ‘central management and control’

In a blog post earlier this month, and in a subsequent Higher Education Supplement version of the post, I expressed doubt as to whether Raffles College of Design and Commerce, formerly known as KvB Institute of Technology, had current ‘central management and control’ in Australia. This was due to it now being owned by the Singapore-based Raffles Education Corporation. If it did not have this central management and control, amendments currently before the Parliament could lead to its students losing access to the FEE-HELP loan scheme.

The Higher Education Supplement and I have now received a letter from Professor Ron Newman, CEO and Chair of Raffles College of Design and Commerce, stating that it meets the requirements for FEE-HELP approval and therefore that they will be compliant with the new legal requirements.

Newman’s letter states that the members of the College’s Council all live in Australia, all but one of the eight members of the academic board live in Australia, three of the four company directors live in Australia, and it has a registered office in Sydney.

The issue here is what constitutes central management and control, but I agree that this sounds as close as is possible to central management and control being in Australia as is possible with 100% foreign ownership.

I’d note too that neither my post nor my article were intended to be criticisms of Raffles; only of the misguided policies of the former government that the current government was legislating to enforce.

Our ‘anomalous, inconsistent and irrational’ higher education system

The SMH report of the higher education review discussion paper picks out one of its very few quotable quotes, describing the funding system as:

at best complex and at worst anomalous, inconsistent and irrational.

This will come as no surprise to readers of this blog.

There are a few instances of this kind of frank analysis. The discussion paper summarises the research on what effects increases in student charges have had on low SES groups or particular disciplines (ie, none), so we now have a government document that effectively admits that the hundreds of millions of dollars the government is spending reducing charges for maths and science students is money wasted.

The government’s rhetoric about cuts to per student expenditure is also put into context. Labor has preferred out-of-date OECD data which ends in 2004, conveniently missing the surge in spending per student since then. Here is the key sentence (p.15):

From 2005, income per place has increased and in 2006 was $15,090, or 7.2% above the 1989 level (in real terms).

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My (possible, unintentional) contribution to university protectionism

I fear I may be, unintentionally, partly responsible for a minor piece of protectionism currently on its way through federal parliament.

The story started last year when I was researching for a paper on private providers of higher education (like many of my research projects, it has fallen victim to the daily bombardment of urgent tasks). These providers have been assisted by the extension of the FEE-HELP loans scheme, which lets their Australian students borrow money on similar terms to HECS students in Commonwealth-subsidised places at public universities.

However, the Higher Education Support Act 2003 requires that in order to be eligible these providers must (among other things) have their ‘central management and control in Australia’. This was always a strange provision, since there could be many benefits from having foreign higher education providers set up in Australia.

Indeed, not very long after the Act came into force the government itself came to the same conclusion, but instead of changing the law passed a special amendment permitting the students of the Adelaide campus of the Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Mellon University to get FEE-HELP. In the process, it added another strange ideological qualification, with the provision reading:

Carnegie Mellon University, a non-profit organisation established under Pennsylvania law. (emphasis added)

But I digress. In the course of researching the ownership of private providers, I came across two that had, since becoming eligible for FEE-HELP, been taken over by foreign companies. In the case of one of them, the government’s own higher education institution website is advertising this as a positive:
Continue reading “My (possible, unintentional) contribution to university protectionism”

What we did not agree to at 2020

As Joshua Gans notes, the final report of the 2020 Summit is out.

The authors of the productivity stream report certainly have an interesting definition of the word ‘agree’, as in ‘the stream agreed to the following’. What this means is that the ideas that follow were not, in the limited time available, subject to sufficiently vigorous dissent to knock them out of consideration. But given those time constraints, most people were more concerned with getting their own pet ideas in than keeping other people’s pet ideas out.

Given the lack of a proper decision making procedure, the productivity stream as a whole agreed to none of the ideas presented.

There are many bad ideas in this document, but two in particular amused me:

* [ensure] that policies and programs are informed by evidence and rigorous evaluation

This from a group that rarely gave policy suggestions more than a few minutes of explanation or discussion.

* develop measures to improve work-life balance

From a group sacrificing its weekend, led by a man who shows less regard for work-life balance than just about any other major employer.