Australian Education Minister Alan Tudge has given universities until the end of this year to enforce a freedom of speech code, threatening to use legislation if universities refuse or cannot implement it.
“You cannot pursue truth without freedom of expression. You cannot create knowledge without freedom of academic inquiry,” Tudge said in a speech to the Universities Australia conference in Canberra on June 3.
He then quoted what the first Vice-Chancellor of Australian National University, Sir Douglas Copland told Prime Minister Robert Menzies in a letter in 1948 (pdf): “The establishment and maintenance of academic freedom is more important than the actual research and teaching done inside the walls of a university.”
Tudge was critical that some universities still had yet to begin the process of implementing the French Model Code, to which all university leaders agreed to 26 months ago.
It refers to former High Court Chief Justice Robert French’s code, which has freedom of speech as one of its core values.
“I want to see the Model Code implemented fully this year, with no more excuses. You all committed to do this,” he said. “If it becomes apparent that universities remain unable or unwilling to adopt the Model Code, I will examine all options available to the Government to enforce it—which may include legislation.”
George Williams, the deputy vice-chancellor of the University of New South Wales called on the government to include a “free speech statute” to allow Australians the legal right to free speech.
“Free speech needs to include the right to say things that people disagree with and may find offensive,” Williams told The Daily Telegraph. “We do find an increasing danger of self-censorship… it has a chilling effect on what people say and do.”
Tudge also told university leaders that they should not forget that public universities were initially established with a single purpose—educating Australians.
“In the past several months, I have had almost every Vice-Chancellor talk to me about research and international students, but not many talk to me about their ambitions for Australian students,” he said.
He called on the universities to focus on enhancing the learning experience of Australians, starting with a return to face-to-face learning.
The speech also covered the government’s agenda on research commercialisation.
Tudge said he wants Australian universities to work with more businesses and governments to translate research into breakthrough products on top of producing “brilliant, pure research.”
A review into building closer ties between Australian universities and industry was announced, which would be led by two university leaders.
The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) called Tudge’s emphasis on commercialisation “short-sighted.”
“If the Government was serious about its commitment to research and commercialisation opportunities, it would have continued the additional funding for research in this year’s Budget, but this was also cut,” NTEU National President Alison Barnes said.
The union was also disappointed in Tudge for failing to address the number of jobs lost as a result of COVID-19, dubbing it the “biggest crisis ever faced” by universities.