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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