Federal Parliament - Higher Education Support Amendment (Freedom of Speech) Bill 2020

February 24, 2021

23 February 2021

Dr ALYI rise to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Freedom of Speech) Bill 2020. I understand I have limited time, so I'll try to get through as much as I can, although I doubt that I will. First of all, I say that Labor will not oppose this bill. What the bill does is insert a new definition of 'academic freedom' into the Higher Education Support Act, replacing the existing term, 'free intellectual inquiry', with allied concepts of 'freedom of speech' and 'academic freedom' in relevant provisions. To date, my understanding is that all universities have agreed to voluntarily adopt the French model code and that agreement is now included in their mission based compacts. So it really shouldn't be a controversial bill, which is why Labor won't oppose it.

But I do want to speak to the substantive issue here. In the first instance, I'm not quite sure why the government has called this a freedom of speech bill. To my mind, it is about the freedom and rigour of academic inquiry and the freedom of thought. I say this as somebody who has worked at universities in various capacities for a number of years. I've been a lecturer, a tutor, a researcher and a professor. I've worked on four ARC grants and I was the lead investigator on two. I led a research program and established a research centre looking at global issues. I've supervised PhDs, I've taught undergraduate and postgraduate courses, I've written courses in counterterrorism and I've taught postgraduate units, all in the humanities. As somebody with that background and that experience, I have to say that the biggest and greatest threat to academic freedom in this country is this government and its protracted and sustained attacks on the humanities and on universities. That is the biggest threat to academic freedom.

As I said, while we support this bill and it should be uncontroversial to insert a new definition of 'academic freedom', if you want to talk about freedom of speech at universities you cannot go past some of the actions that this government has taken that go against the very principles of freedom of speech, academic inquiry and academic freedom. I'm really quite aware of the limited time that I have in which to list all of those but I'm quite happy to take up this discussion again and list those, and I will take that opportunity. Suffice it to say that, in my extensive experience over a decade working at universities, as I said, in various capacities, my greatest fear about academic and intellectual freedom has come from the Liberal-National government and their attacks on universities and on the freedom of academics in the humanities—it's not right across the board; it's only in the humanities—to pursue academic knowledge.

Debate interrupted

24 February 2021

Dr ALYI am in continuation. I was reflecting on what academic freedom means and, indeed, what freedom of speech means in the context of academic research, based on my years of experience working at universities in various capacities and in various research areas. Academic freedom means the freedom to pursue knowledge, and all knowledge is worthy of pursuit, whether in the sciences or the humanities. And, as I was reflecting the last time I spoke on this bill, the greatest threat to academic freedom comes from this government and this government's campaign against certain pursuits of knowledge—different types of pursuits of knowledge. There can be no greater example of that than when the previous minister for education vetoed more than $4 million worth of ARC grants, all in the humanities.

Here's what it takes to get an ARC grant. You have to have done a pilot project. You have to have a substantial body of research on which to build. You then have to write an application, and that application can run to 100 pages or so. You then have to have it assessed by a panel of experts. But the former minister for education put himself above that panel of experts in vetoing a number of ARC-approved research projects, all in the humanities.

Out there, being an expert is something you earn, and it's not based on having a staffer write you an op-ed or a staffer write your speeches for you or do your research for you. You actually have to be the one who's conducted the research. You actually have to be the one who's pursued that knowledge and accumulated that knowledge. To have a minister veto and go over and above decisions that were already made by an appointed panel of experts, people who are recognised in their field, is not just hubris; it is actually the very definition of an attack on academic freedom and indeed an attack on freedom of speech in higher education.

Researchers should be able to utilise their expertise to pursue pathways of knowledge that will add to the body of knowledge of expertise in this country. That is what academic freedom is all about. That is what we mean when we talk about the integrity of academic freedom. But that is not the only example of this government's attack on universities and on academic freedom.

Mr Tim Wilson interjecting

DR ALY: The member opposite, the member for Goldstein, likes to interject. Unfortunately, Member for Goldstein, I have to speak out on this—10 years working in the university sector, and when I speak to my colleagues who are still in the university sector they are aghast at the level of interference in academic freedom and academic integrity that this government feels free to undertake. They are absolutely shocked by the decisions taken by the former minister for education in vetoing ARC grants and the current move around fee changes that is supposed to lead to more STEM places but has actually been completely counterproductive.

When we talk about academic freedom and freedom of speech, I think about a gentleman in my electorate of Cowan who called me the other day. He's a mature-age student wanting to go back to university to finish his first degree; he hasn't done a degree before. He's got three kids. He enrolled in a degree in history, because he's interested in history—interested in biblical history, interested in that body of knowledge that has a lot of relevance to how we conduct ourselves today. So he enrolled in a degree and studied his first semester. This semester he's been told that the cost of his degree has doubled, and he can no longer afford to continue studying in that degree. Who deemed that this man's pursuit of knowledge is not worthy? Who is it that deemed that there should be no academic freedom for this man to pursue a degree in history? Who is it that decides what young people get to choose to study? Who is it that decides what people who wish to return to university, or get a degree for the first time, in their 40s or 50s get to study?

The biggest threat to academic freedom is the actions of this government. They need to stop their protracted campaign against the universities, they need to stop the cuts to universities, they need to stop this ideological war against the humanities, and they need to demonstrate that they really are about freedom of speech and academic freedom. On this side of the House, we are about academic freedom. That's why we support this bill—because it makes sense. But I call on the government to do more than just this bill and to actually stand behind what they say about freedom of speech, academic freedom and the integrity of academic freedom.