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:
As for teaching, there are accepted conventions for formulating curriculums and procedures for approving new courses.
By ‘accepted conventions’ he means that universities all agree that they should accredit their own courses – a situation that involves a serious conflict of interest. In vocational courses there may be external accreditation by professional admissions bodies, but in other courses – especially the Arts courses that generate most of the claims of bias – academics tick off courses devised by their colleagues. It is this system of the same institution enrolling students, devising course materials, setting exams, marking exams and then awarding a credential that leads to the constant criticism of ‘dumbing down’ and ‘soft marking’.
I don’t think governments should be in the business of accrediting university courses, but more widespread third-party accreditation would be a significant improvement on assurances from academics that nothing is wrong, and that criticisms are just culture wars angst.