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.

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.

10 thoughts on “Do students have ‘academic freedom’?

  1. Looks like the young Liberals haven’t heard most people lost interest in the culture wars ( and they lost).

    As for students having academic freedom, why not if they are bright enough to create a sound argument for a particular point of view. Actually when I went though ( 35 years ago now) independent thought was encouraged.


  2. A few years ago I wrote an essay explaining to a left-leaning lecturer (gently as he is a nice old buffer) that everything he believed about unemployment and public policy relating to it was wrong. He gave me 90%. This is not an isolated experience.
    Possibly the problem for the Young Liberal students is that many of them are as irrational and narrow in their ideological positions as the lecturers they loathe, and they aren’t able to argue their positions in a reasonable way on the basis of logic and facts. If you do that, you’ll get a decent mark in my experience, even if the lecturer disagrees totally.


  3. I think a bigger problem than having biased courses is students having an opinion on anything That’s one of the problems of trying to teach 18 year olds — many of them haven’t read about or even thought about many issues at all, and nor are they willing to. Most seem happy with just trying remember a list of points for an exam. I imagine many people would be happy for students to have any opinions in some of the subjects that are taught.


  4. Leopold, no doubt your experience is not isolated. I wonder though whether the issue of bias (or quality – I agree with Andrew) is more relevant to average students. It may be easier to get a B over a C or a C over a D if your work corresponds with, rather than contradicts, an academic’s opinion.


  5. Rajat,

    for most undergraduate courses, if something is written well and has an even half-baked argument, its going to be at the top of the pile in terms of grades — that’s generally how things are marked. Worrying about whether you agree with the opinion of the student or whether any arguments presented are even particularly good is the last of your concerns. Just some sort of argument that is well related to the topic and well written is usually just fine. When you are getting into the lower end of the distribution, all you are really looking at is basic literacy (sad but true). Given this, the main concern people that mark these things have is usually getting through the other 50 sitting on their desk.

    The only place I would think that bias is a problem is in the marking of external theses (although even then, it’s not common — who cares about someone’s thesis no-one else will ever read?). But this hardly matters as it is up to the supervisor to tell the student what to do with the reviewers comments.


  6. How did school education manage to get into the inquiry’s terms of reference? Conrad’s argument about 18 year olds applies times 100 to school kids.

    But even if we confine the argument to universities, it’s only applicable even in principle to a small sub set of what is taught in universities, that is, in the arts faculties and a bit of law. I’m guessing there’s not a lot of ideological argy bargy goes on in the teaching of chemical engineering, anatomy or differential equations.


  7. As I’ve said elsewhere, conservatives need to respect academic pursuits and start cultivating bright students into pursuing academic careers. Some problems simply can’t be solved by bellyaching and require more complex writing than can be found in a press release. Peter Coleman and C D Kemp were the last Australian conservatives who encouraged young conservatives to hone their intellectual skills.


  8. We have to be sceptical of any academic discipline that lends itself to student “opinions” at the undergraduate level – at least at the first/second year (or introductory/intermediate) level. Undergraduate education is an opportunity for extremely learned scholars to IMPART knowledge to ingenues and neophytes, not indulge in a therapy session. The first two years should induct the student into the entire discipline. OTOH from 3rd year onwards, options should be focused entirely on the research interests and yes, “biases” of individual academics.

    If an academic discipline is so undisciplined, lacking in rigour/difficulty, or immature that it does not have a solid research territory, then it has no place in a university’s undergraduate curriculum.


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