We should all care about the case of 20-year-old Drew Pavlou, not only because of the injustice of a university intimidating its own student but also because it is symptomatic of the crisis of universities in Australia.
The University of Queensland’s predicament did not begin with the news that it was employing one of the country’s top legal firms to pursue a member of its own student body, nor will it end there.
On May 20, philosophy undergraduate Pavlou will be required to defend himself against allegations of misconduct, particularly in respect of his vocal criticism of the university’s connections with China. This goes far beyond the acceptable behaviour by a public institution.
The Pavlou affair has exposed two things to the Australian public. First, it has exposed the fact UQ, like so many other Australian universities, is now in an extremely perilous financial position, having made the mistake of putting all its eggs in one international student basket. Last year, the university had an estimated 53,305 students, 20,213 of whom were international, about half of whom hailed from China. Last year, the university raked in $679m in direct tuition fees alone.
Second, this is another example of how Australian universities are more focused on their business model than engaging in free intellectual inquiry. In the same way James Cook University (unlawfully) sacked Peter Ridd for exposing flawed Great Barrier Reef science that was lucrative to its business model, UQ is casting aside an outspoken student.
Last year there were scenes of chaos on campus as 200 pro-Chinese Communist Party students turned up to a peaceful pro-Hong Kong freedom demonstration organised by Pavlou. In several videos shared on social media, pro-CCP students were seen screaming, ripping up posters, playing the Chinese national anthem and assaulting the pro-Hong Kong students. The response of the Chinese consul-general in Brisbane, Xu Jie, who happens to be an adjunct professor at the university, was to praise the pro-CCP students for their actions as “self-motived patriotic behaviour”.
The university did nothing to stop 200 pro-CCP students, and its statement following the fracas was unsatisfactory to say the least. It did not name the pro-CCP students as the perpetrators of the violence, nor did it mention disciplinary action. It did not even mention how violent the protests had been, despite viral videos widely available on social media.
When some of the protesters received visits from Beijing’s security apparatus, the university failed to protect them, instead siding with Beijing. Moreover, Xu is still ensconced at the school of languages and cultures.
Also well and truly ensconced on the university campus is a Confucius Institute which, according to its website, is a “gateway to Chinese language and culture”. While this might be the formal mission of the 480 institutes around the world, their informal mission is to promote a highly uncritical view of Chinese society, and they are considered part of a wider pattern of activities that ensure Beijing’s determined narrative is adhered to and disseminated widely in the host countries.
Among other things, this means subjects such as the three Ts — Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen Square — cannot be discussed in many classrooms without fear of a backlash.
Australia has 13 Confucius Institutes as well as 54 Confucius Classrooms that claim to support language education in schools. This means we have the third highest number of Confucius Institutes and classrooms in the world, behind the US and Britain. This when many universities in the US — including the University of Chicago — have been closing their Confucius Institutes, and academics have told Human Rights Watch the institutes are an affront to academic freedom.
Even more disturbing is that several of our prominent universities have signed profitable agreements with Hanban, the agency under which China’s education ministry oversees the institutes.
Employees at UQ, for example, have signed an agreement in which they “must accept the assessment of the (Confucius Institute) Headquarters on the teaching quality”.
China is using the full force of its economic weight to interfere with academic freedom and stifle free speech on campus in the same way it is putting pressure on Australia economically to silence us on an inquiry into COVID-19.
As UQ ponders the unravelling of the basket into which it has placed all its eggs, it should review the almost laughable scope and force of its disciplinary action against Pavlou. The chancellor and the senate must be aware that the creation of martyrs tends to put the spotlight on precisely the issues they are trying to suppress. As Australia becomes more concerned with the sacrifice of free speech in favour of Beijing, UQ may find itself taking direction from governments closer to home.