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No free speech crisis on campuses: French review

Australia’s universities are not facing a free speech crisis, says a new report.

Minister for Education Dah Tehan asked former chief justice of the High Court of Australia Robert French to conduct a review on free speech late last year amid growing public debate and media coverage of the issue.

In his report, French said: “From the available evidence… claims of a freedom of speech crisis on Australian campuses are not substantiated.”

He wrote that there was never a golden age of free speech in Australia’s universities and later added: “Reported incidents in Australia in recent times do not establish a systemic pattern of action by higher education providers or student representative bodies, adverse to freedom of speech or intellectual inquiry in the higher education sector.

“There is little to be gained by debating the contested merits of incidents which have been the subject of report and controversy.”

Still, he noted that even a small number of incidents seen as oppositional to freedom of speech could affect public perception of higher education.

However, French said the answer to those concerns is not increased government regulation but rather suggested a voluntary Model Code be adopted across the sector.

“Such a code is likely to enhance the authority of the sector in its self-regulation in this important area,” he said.

“It should cover academic freedom, particularly those aspects of it which relate to freedom of expression and freedom of intellectual inquiry as well as the protection, at least within existing limits, of institutional autonomy.

“The code should also be at least a relevant consideration in the negotiation of enterprise bargaining agreements, employment contracts, collaborative arrangements with third parties and the conditions upon which major philanthropic gifts are accepted.”

Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said universities will give careful consideration to the recommendations in the 300-page report.

“However, we remain concerned that sector-wide legislative or regulatory requirements would be aimed at solving a problem that has not been demonstrated to exist and any changes could conflict with fundamental principles of university autonomy,” Jackson said.

Tehan said that he would be writing to all higher education providers to urge them to carefully consider French’s recommendations and the adoption of the Model Code.

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