Should universities self-accredit?

It’s a pity the terms of reference for the Senate’s academic freedom inquiry were confused and implicitly threatening interference in academic affairs, because this has brought out the reflexive defensiveness of academics, rather than encouraging them to reflect critically on university practices.

An op-ed in this morning’s Age by University of Sydney academic Ben Saul is a case in point. While he correctly, in my view, argues that students with views contrary to those of academics are rarely treated unprofessionally, his argument on existing mechanisms for controlling bias or prejudice among academics will not reassure sceptics.

For research, he argues that peer review ‘maintains rigorous academic standards’. But peer review is a far from failsafe mechanism. The editors and others who send manuscripts out for peer review may not know the best people to contact, or may not be able to persuade them to act as referees. So expertise may be lacking. Partly because it is anonymous, academics (and others) put very varying levels of effort into it. I’ve come across plenty of refereed publications with multiple factual errors, particularly when I was working on ‘economic rationalism’. Unfortunately, very few academic students of economic rationalism knew very much about economics. With authors and referees as ignorant as each other, errors went undetected.

But at least peer review for research is better than what happens with course materials. Saul tells us that:
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