Two Cheers for Uni Reform

8 December 2021
Two Cheers for Uni Reform - Featured image

Recent changes represent some progress, but much greater reform of higher education in Australia remains essential, argues IPA Review Editor Scott Hargreaves.

The sheer breadth of the free speech crisis on Australian campuses has highlighted the issue of diversity. Not the imagined kind of diversity beloved of the intersectional academic with their obsessive search for offences of race, class and gender in every aspect of life, but rather real diversity: intellectual diversity, viewpoint diversity, institutional diversity. Now there is some glimmer that the Federal Government may finally be recognising the issues, and may even do something about it.

Readers of the IPA Review will know of the IPA’s research into free speech on campus. This commenced when the Free Speech on Campus Audit 2016 identified widespread censorious speech codes and highlighted specific cases of censorship. This included university policies preventing ‘insulting’ and ‘unwelcome’ comments, ‘offensive’ language and, in some cases, ‘sarcasm’.

We have witnessed multiple instances of bowing to those not comfortable with accepting that there may be views other than theirs and equally uncomfortable with the notion that even actions driven by the best of intentions should be subjected to critical analysis. We have seen bullying and stigmatising of those with unpopular views, active efforts to silence, de-platform, and cancel. All of this is happening in what are supposed to be centres of free thought and speech; in places where the young should feel free to test their abilities to propose and progress an argument, to challenge and be challenged without fear of retribution, and to learn how to be contributing members of a society that values respectful debate and rational thinking.

This led to the French Inquiry and what became known as ‘The French Code’. Speaking in support of the Code, Education Minister Alan Tudge said:

If universities are not places for free, robust speech, then their very purpose is jeopardised. You cannot advance knowledge without challenging existing orthodoxies, and risk causing offence in the process. Freedom of expression is the most fundamental foundational principle of a university…

In March 2021, the Government passed the Higher Education Support Amendment (Freedom of Speech) Act 2021, which includes French’s expansive definition of academic freedom and requires every Australian university to have a policy protecting freedom of speech that aligns with French’s Code.

All very well, but yet another instance where an across-the-board problem is addressed by an across-the-board solution. The underlying issue is that for too long the Australian university sector has been a closed shop, with divergence from the norm patrolled by an overmighty regulator. In these pages in 1988, Claudio Veliz identified the problem:

Australia (has) one of the least diversified higher education systems of any major Western democracy; her 20 universities are administered largely in the same manner, using comparable salary scales, similar career structures, and with most other internal administrative and academic arrangements standardised or modified in consultation with the central authorities. It is only a gentle exaggeration to say that Australia has one huge university with 20 campuses strewn over her vast territory.

The consolidations of higher education into mega-universities, known as the ‘Dawkins Reforms’ after the then ALP Education Minister, increased the number quoted by Professor Veliz but reduced the diversity still further by subsuming Colleges of Advanced Education and various specialist and regional institutions.

A key player in the relentless uniformity of the sector has been the regulator, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA). In 2018, the IPA called for TEQSA’s abolition:

TEQSA benefits existing players by creating barriers to entry that prevent competition. The agency has created so much red tape that it is almost impossible to create new or specialist universities. The abolition of TEQSA—or the cutting of red tape—could generate a much-needed university boom.

TEQSA Chief Commissioner Peter Coaldrake, pictured when Vice Chancellor of Queensland University of Technology.
Photo: DFAT

The most notable new addition to the closed shop was Bond University, but this was the exception that proved the rule. Bond was enabled as Australia’s only private university by the then National Party Government in Queensland, under the leadership of Joh Bjelke-Petersen. The Bond University Act passed through the Parliament in April 1987, and the first students started on the Gold Coast campus just over two years later.

A similar path was trod by Australia’s only for-profit university Torrens University, which was set up under South Australian government legislation.

These two disruptors were established at a time when competitive federalism still had some sway in Australia, and the States could act unencumbered. Horrified their oligopoly was threatened—and by private universities at that—the big universities enthusiastically and successfully lobbied for what was effectively a Commonwealth takeover of accreditation. This was solidified in the establishment of TEQSA by the ALP Governments of Rudd and Gillard in 2011. Michael Mann, who was Chancellor of Torrens for 10 years from its inception in 2012, told The Australian recently “it would not be possible today to establish Torrens University (because of new regulations that laid out a long path to university status).”

The stifling atmosphere for intellectual debate enabled by this closed shop was epitomised by a hundred academics at the University of Sydney signing a petition to prevent the university accepting support from the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation to establish a degree course founded on our intellectual heritage. As the Australian Financial Review editorialised in 2018:

What’s noteworthy is that there was no alternative petition with even a handful of signatures on it urging the university to accept the donation to teach, what up until a few years ago, was taken for granted as the essence of our intellectual heritage. That is because the university staffrooms of humanities departments in this country contain about as much diversity of philosophical and political opinion as does the cafeteria at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

That AFR editorial proved prescient. Rather than reform itself, the University of Sydney this year appointed as its new Vice-Chancellor none other than former ABC managing director Mark Scott!

TEQSA has finally emerged as an agent of change.

With universities going from bad to worse TEQSA has, perhaps inevitably, finally emerged as an agent of change. (Consider Gorbachev and Deng commencing reforms under their respective communist parties in the Soviet Union and China in the 1980s: in the closed systems of one-party states, from where else could change emerge within the system?)

A key decision by the Commonwealth Government was to appoint Emeritus Professor Peter Coaldrake, former Vice Chancellor and CEO of the Queensland University of Technology, as Chief Commissioner of TEQSA. Perhaps during his time at QUT, Coaldrake was ‘schooled’ in the issues of viewpoint diversity by his university’s botched handling of the Section 18C case against Calum Thwaites in the case of the QUT Three. (Director of the IPA’s Legal Rights Project, Morgan Begg, wrote on the case and the need to repeal 18C in this magazine’s November 2016 edition.)

In any event, upon appointment Coaldrake led the process of making recommendations which resulted in a revised Higher Education Standards Framework designed, in his words, to “simplify and enhance the categorisation of higher education providers in Australia, ensuring that the Provider Category Standards remain fit for purpose in Australia’s evolving higher education landscape”.

The challenge was how to promote alternatives to a perceived closed shop of Australian universities seemingly devoted to woke ideology and unwelcoming of anyone with traditional or conservative views. In a functioning, free market society with as many students as there are in Australia, there should be room for institutions displaying more commitment to robust debate and the pursuit of truth in science and political life. The accountability should be to stakeholders—particularly students—rather than regulator. The marketplaces of student enrolments, research funding, and industry extension can do the job.

Faith-based institutions are more open to free, respectful debate.

The institutions that have maintained fidelity to campuses being home to the spirit of inquiry have been, perhaps somewhat ironically, centres of higher learning with a faith-based foundation. Some have even evolved from theological colleges and are institutions that according to the received wisdom would be the most dogmatic and the least accepting of a vigorous contest of ideas. But—and this is why the irony is misplaced—they are actually more open to free, respectful debate. Such a counterintuitive outcome is a result of a commitment to the scholarly principle of unbiased and unfettered inquiry, and to an equal commitment to free speech. Perhaps even as harried holders of minority views in a country beset by cancel culture, they understand better than most the importance of promoting tolerance and civility as virtues. Their commitment is sometimes explicitly inspired by those persecuted for their faith or persecuted by a dominant faith.

The Director of the IPA’s Foundations of Western Civilisation Program, Dr Bella d’Abrera, identified the key role played by one such institution, Campion College, in her report The Rise Of Identity Politics: An Audit Of History Teaching At Australian Universities In 2017. Campion College in Sydney was established with the support of the Catholic Church as Australia’s first liberal arts college in 2006.

The problem is that, despite meeting all necessary requirements, most such Institutions have been relegated by TEQSA to a status markedly inferior to that of those designated universities, and there were powerful institutional pressures were resisting change. As Paul Oslington, Professor of Economics and Dean of Business, at Alphacrucis College, put it in 2018:

Incumbent higher education providers are well-resourced, well-networked and strongly averse to competition from new entrants.

The status of second-class citizen has been hitherto almost impossible to escape due to onerous research capability and other requirements, and not because the quality of the courses they offer is inferior. The limitation has had real effects because only fully fledged universities attract the government subsidies that allow them to offer as low as zero fees, and because only students attending fully fledged universities benefit from government provided living allowances and scholarships.

University deregulation could and should occur.

The glimmer of change came at the start of October 2021, when TEQSA promoted one previous University College—the over 100-year-old Avondale College (A Seventh Day Adventist founded institution)—to Australian University status and registered three institutions in the newly defined University College category. They are National Institute of Dramatic Arts (NIDA), Moore Theological College, and the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS).

According to Professor Coaldrake:

Australia has a strong higher education sector, and these reforms will support greater provider diversity, with a focus on embedding excellence across Australia’s evolving higher education landscape. The reforms include the new University College category, which recognises high-quality institutions and provides them with new opportunities to develop course offerings that meet the future needs of students, employers, industry and communities. The updated standards also include augmented research requirements for universities.

His comments offer a pathway to other University Colleges such as Campion College and Sydney’s Alphacrucis College, which may wish to progress to full university status. Such institutions now offer well regarded arts and business programs, in addition to their original theological/liberal arts base, and can deliver beneficial competition to the established players.

One swallow does not a summer make, and these promotions do not substitute for the existing universities rediscovering their fundamental mission of transmitting the best of our civilisation and encouraging rather than suppressing the spirit of free inquiry and free speech. Nor are they a substitute for the deregulation that could and should occur. If that occurred we could attain something more approximating the US, which Professor Veliz contrasted with Australia in the quote provided earlier:

The United States has the most dynamic, diverse and numerous academic institutions on Earth. There are thousands of universities; some entirely funded by the state; others mainly from private sources; some principally sponsored by religious organisations; others by regional groupings of industrial corporations. They range from the largest and the richest in the world, to the smallest; from the ones offering the greatest range of courses of study, to the most severely specialised.

Just in the last few months, refugee from The New York Times, Bari Weiss, wrote We Can’t Wait for Universities to Fix Themselves, So We’re Starting a New One. In that article, Weiss detailed the exciting plans for the University of Austin, with an explicit mandate to encourage heterodox views, and boasting as future staff and fellows an exciting roll call of scholars, journalists, and artists, including Niall Ferguson, Peter Boghossian, Steven Pinker, Andrew Sullivan, Ayan Hirsi Ali, Sohrab Amari, Tyler Cowen, and many more. Weiss writes:

Our rigorous curriculum will be the first designed in partnership not only with great teachers but also society’s great doers—founders of daring ventures, dissidents who have stood up to authoritarianism, pioneers in tech, and the leading lights in engineering and the natural sciences. Our students will be exposed to the deepest wisdom of civilisation and learn to encounter works not as dead traditions but as fierce contests of timeless significance that help human beings distinguish between what is true and false, good and bad, beautiful and ugly. Students will come to see such open inquiry as a lifetime activity that demands of them a brave, sometimes discomfiting, search for enduring truths.

Many in Australia—including this writer—would seize the opportunity to work towards that kind of vision, and for whom by comparison the incremental change allowed by the commissars of TEQSA is thin gruel indeed. That said, achieving any kind of change is difficult and even incremental improvement should be celebrated and seized upon as a lever to further improvements.

Maybe those in command of the sandstone universities who like to denigrate the role of religion in Australian life will ultimately be shamed by the contribution of faith-based institutions to ensuring a free and spirited contest of ideas on Australian campuses. And later still, will see their students desert en masse for a new breed of agile and independent higher education and research institutions.

This article from the Summer 2021 edition of the IPA Review is written by IPA Review Editor Scott Hargreaves.

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