Australia’s university regulator, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, is not only failing to protect free intellectual inquiry but its ideologically driven interventions are part of the problem.
Australia’s universities are facing a serious reputational crisis. The more universities become aligned with a single line of political thought, the more the community will wonder, rightly, why billions of taxpayer dollars fund these institutions.
Senator James Paterson wrote on this page last week that universities that did not uphold free intellectual inquiry should be fined. Radio broadcaster Alan Jones has discussed freezing funding to James Cook University following the sacking of Peter Ridd. Malcolm Turnbull has said he will be speaking to the Australian National University following its rejection of the Ramsay Centre.
A competent regulator would be on top of this issue by now.
But TEQSA has been captured by the same progressive monoculture that is afflicting our universities. This is concerning because it is the agency that decides which institutions can call themselves a university, award degrees and receive generous taxpayer funds.
Its website mentions progressive concepts such as “diversity” 119 times and “equity” a further 57 times. “Free intellectual inquiry” is mentioned six times and “freedom of expression” just twice. TEQSA has issued guidance notes on diversity and equity and wellbeing and safety but it has yet to issue a note about free speech on campus.
In 2011 the Gillard Labor government amended the Higher Education Support Act to require universities, as a condition of receiving federal funding, to have “a policy that upholds free intellectual inquiry in relation to learning, teaching and research”. TEQSA has made no effort to enforce this requirement.
The Institute of Public Affairs’ Free Speech on Campus Audit 2017 found that only eight out of Australia’s 42 universities have a stand-alone intellectual freedom policy. Charles Sturt University has 403 policies including a 1600-word document on when, where and how flags should be flown. But it does not have a policy dedicated to free intellectual inquiry.
The audit also found that Australia’s universities maintain speech codes that prevent “insulting” and “unwelcome” comments, “offensive” language and, in some cases, “sarcasm” and hurt feelings. These policies encourage academics and students to remain silent for fear of repercussions. They are not compatible with a university’s role to facilitate debate in the pursuit of truth. Offence and hurt feelings are a normal by-product of hearing ideas with which you disagree.
TEQSA has not held universities to account for policies that threaten intellectual freedom, the sacking of professors for expressing their scholarly views and complaints by academics across the political spectrum about the dangerous ideological monoculture in higher education. The agency’s internal thinking was revealed by its draft diversity and equity guidance note quietly released late in 2016.
The guidance note discusses all types of diversity — including racial, ethnic, religious, national and sexual — except the diversity necessary for a functioning university: viewpoint diversity. The draft note listed identity politics victim groups. It included censorious “inclusive language” requirements. It asserted that creating “equivalent opportunities for academic success” could mean “creating the conditions for equity of outcomes” — undermining the competitive nature of a university and the reality that not everybody can or should get first-class honours. It also redefined “social responsibility” to include the progressive political idea of “social justice”. These elements ultimately were removed from the final note following a submission by the IPA; however, its existence in the first place is concerning.
TEQSA’s latest focus is the questionable demand that universities become responsible for mediating sexual harassment allegations. TEQSA is de facto encouraging the creation of inquisitive, low-evidence kangaroo courts. This follows the footsteps of the problematic “Dear Colleague” letter that lowered the evidential standards for campus sexual assault allegations in the US. The letter recently was withdrawn by US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Universities lack the expertise to facilitate natural justice. These complex matters should be the responsibility of the police and the legal system.
One way to improve education quality is the creation of more universities. All our universities teach every subject in a similar way. There are no specialist science or economics and politics universities — such as Imperial College London and the London School of Economics — or a wide array of liberal arts colleges as in the US.
TEQSA benefits existing players by creating barriers to entry that prevent competition. The agency has created so much red tape that it is almost impossible to create new or specialist universities. The abolition of TEQSA — or the cutting of red tape — could generate a much-needed university boom. Australia’s university cartel finally would be challenged on quality and price by new institutions. These new universities also could provide students with the choice to study at a university that has not been afflicted by a debilitating ideological monoculture.
Matthew Lesh is a research fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs.