Intellectual freedom? Only if your values are ‘aligned’

The university year began with a rumbling noise that all is not well with intellectual freedom in this country. What started as a small story at a Queensland campus has become a very big one that demands attention if we care about the future of the current generation of young Australians, the next generation, and the trajectory of freedom in this country.

Generation Liberty is home to a group of young Australians, part of the Institute of Public Affairs, who are committed to understanding and promoting the way in which freedom has enriched people across the history of civilisation. As a board member and now chairman of the IPA, I have come to know many members.

They are an eclectic bunch mostly under 25. So good luck to those creepy fiends of identity politics who try to filter these young people by sex, sexual orientation, racial and religious traits. This futile search will throw up these common threads only: they are curious contrarians. They engage in furious debates, don’t take themselves too seriously and are willing to listen to others. They want to learn things they haven’t always been taught at school or at university, the history of Western civilisation, warts and all, the ebbs and flows of freedoms and its impact on people.

Last month, Gen Lib, as we call it, applied to have a stall at Market Week, an extended part of O Week at Queensland University of Technology, which runs in late February. By email in late January, Alisha Pritchard from QUT’s student guild declined Gen Lib’s application, telling it the committee had “decided that your brand does not align with our values”.

In the days that followed, Drew Pavlou, a student who sits on the University of Queensland’s senate, started a petition to ban Gen Lib from UQ’s market day activities too. Pavlou describes himself as a human rights campaigner. He has tweeted a video of himself supporting Hong Kong protesters at UQ. Alas, his lack of support for intellectual freedom at home creates a serious credibility problem for him. In other social media posts Pavlou has called for crushing dissent, burning books and said Gen Lib members “need to be bullied into submission.”

What on earth are they afraid of? This year, Gen Lib intends to run a book club for students that will include Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Lord of the Flies, by William Golding, Albert Camus’s The Stranger, Mark Twain’s The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, and Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. Gen Lib also will chat about what we call Big Fat Books, including The Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Atlas Shrug­ged by Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom.

Which book frightens QUT’s student guild or the student representative on the UQ senate’s peak governing body so much that they don’t want students knowing about Gen Lib?

When news broke of this censorship of Gen Lib, QUT’s student guild ran for the hills, claiming a litany of other reasons for Gen Lib’s exclusion. But remember its first response to Gen Lib: “Your brand does not align with our values.”

At one level, this is a story about a group of students who have not been taught about the empowering forces of intellectual freedom, let alone the history of freedom across a few thousand years of Western civilisation.

But it is part of a much bigger story that includes a vice-chancellor, too. Following questions from this newspaper to the Education Minister, QUT vice-chancellor Margaret Sheil released a statement last week saying that O Week gives priority to guild-affiliated clubs, and Gen Lib could affiliate and apply next year. In any case, “the available area for stalls during O Week is currently at capacity”, she said.

Then came some pure puffery. “QUT does not operate on the basis of left or right-wing bias: the effectiveness of all we do here relies upon remaining open to a variety of contesting viewpoints and to the merits of evidence,” Sheil said.

Was Sheil misinformed about the facts or was she being disingenuous? Either way, the university’s leader failed to address the fact that the student guild at QUT rejected Gen Lib’s application for Market Week, not O Week, and on the basis that its brand did not align with their values.

On Wednesday afternoon, QUT backed away from its first statement. Peter Gatbonton, QUT’s manager of student engagement, emailed an invitation to Gen Lib’s Theodora Pantelich, inviting them to be part of O Week.

What happened to no space? Maybe like a late guest pulling out from a wedding reception the chaps from the Socialist Alternative couldn’t make it after all.

Seriously, are we meant to be grateful that QUT administrators caved in to pressure and managed, after all, to find space for the ideas of freedom at QUT’s O Week?

Perhaps, in her private moments, the vice-chancellor of QUT wonders how the heck it reached this dismal state of affairs among her students. In truth, the responsibility rests with university administrators like her. Rarely from the goodness of their hearts or the brilliance of their minds do VCs defend intellectual freedom. They tend to do it once forced, when exposed, and shamed. Like here.

Vice-chancellors love talking about deliberately ambiguous concepts such as “diversity” and “inclusion” rather than a bedrock principle called intellectual freedom. Worse, they have overseen the cementing of these woolly words on campus to shut down div­erse views and students who challenge the orthodoxy feel excluded.

We know this from a survey of students conducted by the IPA last year. Rather than listening to the public exhortations of VCs, we asked students about their experience at universities. Forty-one per cent of them said they felt unable to express their opinions at university. This is what transforms a small story about a student guild at QUT into a very big story about the strangulation of intellectual freedom. The story gets bigger still. It includes a set of laws that are lame and a regulator that has had no discernible impact on improving intellectual freedom at Australian universities.

Start with the Higher Education Support Act 2003. As a condition of receiving federal money from taxpayers, it provides that “a higher education provider … must have a policy that upholds free intellectual inquiry in relation to learning, teaching, and research”. Then there is the HES Framework 2015 that says: “The higher education provider has a clearly articulated higher education purpose that includes a commitment to and support for free intellectual inquiry in its academic endeavours.” This framework requires a university “governing body … to develop and maintain an institutional environment in which freedom of intellectual inquiry is upheld and protected”.

Now for the regulator. The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency is empowered to enforce the HES Act and the HEC Framework so taxpayers and students know publicly funded universities are carrying out their core mission to educate their students.

TEQSA’s own report card is woeful. Like VCs around the country, TEQSA’s chief commissioner, Nick Saunders, has mentioned intellectual freedom, including when asked at a Senate estimates inquiry, but there is scant evidence of a regulator genuinely committed to holding universities to their core mission of intellectual freedom. If this is yet another rogue bureaucracy ignoring its remit from government, the government has a chance to appoint a new kind of bureaucrat. TEQSA chief executive Anthony McClaran is leaving his role at the end of next month. The search for a new boss may be the chance to boost the heft of this body.

But, then again, maybe the law needs reforming. After all, requiring a policy on paper about intellectual freedom is meaningless; what matters is enforcement. This story, then, is also about the federal government. A series of them, in fact. Intellectual freedom has been on the slide for decades, going back to the atrocious treatment of Geoffrey Blainey at the University of Melbourne in 1984 when he aired his view that the Hawke government’s 40 per cent intake of poor immigrants from Asia could threaten the country’s social cohesion unless managed properly. He was hounded off campus as a racist. Blainey is not a racist; he is one of Australia’s finest historians.

There has sometimes been a bit of talk from politicians, prime ministers too, and a bit of legislative tinkering such as Julia Gillard’s changes to the HES Act in 2011. But still, today, too many university campuses are not known as places of learning where intellectual freedom thrives. If they were, a student guild running stalls for new students wouldn’t dream of banning a Gen Lib stall on the basis that its brand did not align with the guild’s values. If intellectual freedom were taken seriously, a vice-chancellor would not put up with this baloney on their campus. And neither would the regulator or our government.

The Education Minister has the authority to direct TEQSA in the exercise and performance of its powers. Isn’t it time then for a ministerial kick up the regulator’s backside? If not now, when? What will it take for that to happen?

Remember, too, that thousands of Australians are still waiting for the Morrison government to support intellectual freedom by supporting Peter Ridd, who was sacked by James Cook University for challenging the quality of climate science.

Instead, Education Minister Dan Tehan has plans to tweak this, and tinker with that, tightening up the government’s “compact” with each publicly funded university to include universities reporting on their approaches to supporting freedom of intellectual inquiry on campus. That’ll fix things, then.

Another more difficult, but not impossible, route to intellectual freedom is to remove sources of public funding from universities that fail at that core mission.

A baker’s mission is to bake. A lawyer gives legal advice. A plumber will fix your plumbing. Yet we need laws, regulators, compacts and codes to convince university administrators their core job is to offer intellectual freedom on campus.

No wonder Generation Liberty is thriving, attracting curious young people hungry for what publicly funded universities fail to offer them. It is a safe bet that, far away from student guilds and VC offices, our values about freedom align very closely with millions of Australians.