University regulator backs down on free intellectual inquiry attack

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31 May 2017
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Australia’s university regulator has backed down on a major attack on campus intellectual freedom, following public scrutiny by the Institute of Public Affairs.

In October last year the Territory Education Quality and Standard Agency quietly released a draft Guidance Note on ‘Diversity and Equity’.

The original note conflated equivalent opportunity with ‘creating the conditions for equity of outcomes’, re-defined social responsibility to include the politically loaded concept of ‘social justice’, and mandated censorious ‘inclusive language’. It even potentially required universities to teach ‘diversity’ in irrelevant contexts.

It was, as I wrote at the time in the IPA’s submission on the draft which was covered in The Australian, a breath-taking attack on free intellectual inquiry and diversity of viewpoints:

An understanding of diversity is a laudable goal. However, the implications of this are extremely problematic. By defining diversity as exclusively relating to identity groups (Page 1), and requiring “inclusive language”, TEQSA is encouraging the creation of a censorious culture on campus.

…The best-intentioned concept of “inclusive language,” to accommodate identity is, in practice, damaging to free intellectual inquiry. It encourages students and academics to not explore ideas, for fear it could hurt feelings or cause offence. This should not be encouraged by the sector’s regulator.

The note blatantly contradicted the higher education framework legislation on which it was supposed to be based, which obliges universities to have ‘a commitment to and support for free intellectual inquiry in its academic endeavours.’ The note could have been used, at the extreme, to deregister a university.

Six months after the original draft, the regulator has now released the final version of the note which is a substantial improvement. It rectifies almost all key criticisms in the IPA’s submission.

The long list of identity victim groups has been removed, the equation of equality of opportunity with equivalent outcomes is gone, social justice is no longer part of a university’s role. They have removed the sentence about including diversity in education itself. They have removed the requirement of ‘inclusive language’.

Importantly, for the first time the university regulator has stated:

Measures taken to accommodate diversity should also not contravene the pursuit of free intellectual inquiry, and more generally, freedom of expression.

This is a giant leap in the right direction.

The final guidance note is imperfect – the definitions are often vague, the prioritisation of diversity has not been removed, and the focus on student ‘self-esteem’ is maintained. Nevertheless, it is now far less dangerous in ambition and scope.

Universities must now act. The IPA’s Free Speech on Campus Audit found that four-in-five universities have speech codes, or have taken action, that seriously restricts free expression on campus. Speech codes prohibit ‘unwelcome’ comments, ‘offensive’ language, and, in the worst cases, ‘sarcasm’ and hurt ‘feelings’. Universities should abolish these speech codes and make explicit statements in favour of free expression.

Universities, to fulfil their purpose of debating and developing ideas, must remove existing restrictions on free intellectual inquiry.

Matthew Lesh is a research fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs

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