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Academic freedom for whom?

By Katharine Gelber - posted Friday, 4 July 2008

Anti-intellectualism has recently changed tack in Australia. We have a new battle; academics fending off accusations that we are biased. Apparently we’re not educators, we’re indoctrinators. What a powerful charge!

J’accuse”, they say. “I think you’re biased because I disagree with you. Therefore you must be biased. And bias is bad; very, very bad.”

The Young Liberals accuse us of bias by stating our viewpoints in class, and by implying further that academics will mark down students with whom they disagree (The Australian, HES, March 12, 2008).


If it wasn’t all so serious it would be laughable. After all, how can anyone accuse academics of indoctrination given the singular failure of higher learning institutions during the last decade and a half to churn out graduates capable of effecting changes to policies with which we (left-wing academics, that is) wholeheartedly disagreed. Foreign policy? No. Health funding? No. Environmental policy? No.

But it is serious. We now apparently have an enquiry into academic freedom which is to be conducted by the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Committee.

The committee’s terms of reference, as set out in parliament by Senator Fifield who instigated the inquiry, are: to investigate the current level of academic freedom in school and higher education, with particular reference to the level of intellectual diversity and the impact of ideological, political and cultural prejudice in the teaching of senior secondary education and of courses at Australian universities, including the content of curricula and course materials and the conduct of teachers and assessments.

The committee is also to investigate the need for accuracy, fairness and “balance” in content, and the promotion of intellectual diversity and “contestability of ideas” (The Australian, HES, June 25, 2008).

This is serious stuff indeed. The very same committee which is to investigate balance and prejudice is simultaneously tasked with promoting academic freedom. This seems like a bit of an oxymoron to me. Find out if we’re prejudiced, and simultaneously protect us from intellectual intrusion. Surely the former constitutes the latter? Doesn’t the inquiry itself, at least in the terms in which it is currently set out, risk academic freedom and intellectual enquiry?

In a classic example of a “chilling” effect, it is highly likely that the announcement of the enquiry combined with the anti-intellectual campaign of the Young Liberals will curb academic freedom of expression before the inquiry has even begun.


And the inquiry begs another question. What do Senator Fifield and his colleagues believe academic freedom to mean?

In the normal course of an academic’s duties she or he is expected to teach a diverse group of students. Some subjects are less overtly political - medicine, for example, or accounting, where a right answer is clearly right and a wrong answer is clearly wrong. I hope my doctor and accountant know the difference between a right answer and a wrong answer.

In other subjects the content is very overtly political. I teach politics. Everything I teach is political. Now, what would constitute behaviour that is “biased” in teaching my courses? Would it constitute “bias” if I told the students in advance what my personal political beliefs were in relation to issues we were discussing? Would it constitute “bias” if I didn’t tell the students in advance what my personal political beliefs were?

This is an open question. It’s arguable that declaring one’s viewpoint in advance actually reduces the potential for bias. Some academics tell their students if they are a member of a political party. When I teach human rights, I tell students that I am in favour of the protection of human rights. A declaration of viewpoint might occur because the academic does not want students to waste time trying to guess. It might happen because the academic thinks it is ethically responsible to declare one’s interest (that’s my reason). On the other hand, a decision not to declare might happen because the academic thinks it’s no one’s business, or because they don’t want the students to pre-judge them and close down their critical capacities when the academic speaks. These are also good reasons.

Most of the reasons an academic might decide to declare or not declare have nothing to do with wanting, or being able, to enforce one’s own view on the students. After all, university students are intelligent adults who are more than capable of making up their own minds as to the viewpoints they want to hold. More importantly, there is no direct correlation between declaring a viewpoint to students and “enforcing” that viewpoint. They are two entirely different things. To collapse the distinction is deliberately to misrepresent the purpose and effect of any such declaration.

The purpose of classes is to create a culture of critical inquiry and intellectual curiosity. People will disagree about things. Every academic I know worth their salary encourages disagreement, in a manner conducive to respectful interchange.

There are of course guidelines for behaviour, because civility rules permit an interchange of opinions to occur. There’s no point letting students yell each other down - then no one learns anything and only the most vocal get to have their say.

Free speech doesn’t mean that the most forceful get to drown others out. But that’s different from foreclosing the opportunity for disagreement. If the possibility of disagreement over contestable questions were foreclosed, that would be a concern. But I’ve never known this to happen, and evidence suggests it’s not what the accusers are talking about.

Something that would constitute bias would be an academic marking assignments according to their own personal beliefs of what is “right” and “wrong”, and giving better marks to those assignments whose viewpoints concurred with theirs. This would be extremely rare.

As an example, I’ve given a High Distinction to an essay which argued against the right to abortion in my human rights class. It was an extremely good essay, which was well researched, cogently argued and articulately written, and it deserved the mark. It was likely that some students figured out during class discussions that I support a woman’s right to choose, but this didn’t affect my marking.

If anyone can demonstrate that someone marks people down because of their viewpoint, this should be immediately condemned. But it’s extremely rare. And we hardly need a Senate inquiry to determine whether, and where, marking bias might occur.

It would be pretty easy for a student to appeal through the normal university procedures against an occurrence of that nature. It’s also true that although students sometimes believe their assignments have been marked down because the lecturer disagreed with them, that doesn’t make the student right.

Students can sometimes misunderstand the comments written on assignments, or can attribute an easier explanation to their lower-than-expected mark than the more complicated one on offer. At university students are often surprised by the range of marks. They come from an HSC system which gives marks as high as 100, and being university entrants they usually did pretty well at school. At university they can be shocked to discover a different grading structure, as well as a different method of enquiry.

Academic freedom is a fundamental cornerstone of a free society. And so is the valuing of the work of intellectuals. Without intellectual research and development of knowledge, society would founder and be unable to resolve the complex social, environmental and scientific challenges facing it. We need the best and brightest to be supported and left to their own enquiries.

It is inevitable that in this process academics will express views either in their publications or in the classroom that disagree with the status quo, or with the government of the day, or with the views of some students in the room. Doing this is not evidence of bias, it’s evidence of the success of intellectual enquiry. It is academics’ job to go against the grain, to critique, and to analyse.

Earlier this year Kim Carr expressed a commitment to the preservation of academic freedom. He suggested the development of charters between the government and research institutions, to protect intellectual freedom (The Australian, HES, February 20, 2008). Such charters should be pursued.

But ultimately the freedom of intellectuals to conduct enquiry and report their results in a climate of freedom and candour rests little on the text of a document or charter, and much on the place intellectual enquiry holds in the general community.

Intellectual enquiry needs to be (re-)valued as a public good. Intellectuals need to be given recognition as professionals whose job it is to ask academic questions, and to analyse the possible answers to those questions that have been posed in scholarly literature and public life.

A parliamentary inquiry will not assist the pursuit of these goals, and the current government’s concession to the idea that such an inquiry is needed demonstrates its own lack of understanding of what academic freedom really means.

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About the Author

Dr Katharine Gelber is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of New South Wales. She is currently engaged in an ARC-funded research project into freedom of speech in Australia, and is a Visiting Fellow, Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law, University of New South Wales.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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