26 Oct TEQSA will investigate university freedom of speech
Tim Dodd — The Australian — 25/10/2018
The national higher education regulator TEQSA will investigate whether universities are restricting freedom of speech through their policies.
Nicholas Saunders, who chairs the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, told a Senate estimates committee last night that “while equity and diversity and civility and mutual respect are very important (in universities), those things should not override a fundamental nature of a higher education institutions which is about contesting ideas”.
He was responding to Queensland Liberal senator Amanda Stoker who asked if he was aware of policies at many universities which, she said, “actively restrict freedom of speech and stifle intellectual freedom”.
Senator Stoker told the committee that the University of Queensland had a policy covering all staff and students which said using sarcasm was unacceptable behaviour; Western Sydney University’s bullying prevention guidelines deemed sarcasm to be unacceptable; Monash University’s social media policy says students must not make any comment that offends: and CQUniversity’s student behaviour misconduct policy requires students to avoid any behaviour that offends, and applies penalties including compensating another person.
“I could keep going but lots of universities have policies that are quite problematic in terms of their restriction on the ability of students and staff to freely speak about many things,” she said.
Professor Saunders responded that he could not speak for his fellow TEQSA commissioners but “the instances which you’ve just pointed out do not sit comfortably with me, they certainly do not fit the concept of a university being a place where ideas are contested or debated, where people are coming to learn how to think without real concern about whether they are likely to be offended.”
He said TEQSA would look into the examples Senator Stoker cited.
“Many of these policies emerge from well meaning action in terms of trying to right perceived wrongs or avoid unnecessary conflict,” Professor Saunders added.
“But certainly it would not be appropriate for Australia’s higher sector to be a place where people should be so careful that one should never offend anyone else.”
Professor Saunders also told the committee hearing that the behaviour of students at the University of Sydney last month who blocked access to a speech by author and sex therapist Bettina Arndt, was “inappropriate”.
“If any breaches of the code of conduct have occurred then appropriate action needs to be taken,” he said. The University of Sydney is investigating the actions of the student protesters, and they face possible sanction.
However Professor Saunders said there was not a free speech crisis on Australian university campuses.
“The issue of free speech and its importance on campus, and student reactions to particular speakers has been going on for decades,” he said
“It would be wrong to consider I think (that) we now have rabid outbreak of hampering freedom of speech.”
Answering a question from another Liberal senator, James Patterson, Professor Saunders agreed that it was not appropriate for universities to charge students who organised events for security.
“Universities should be able to provide, out of their own resources, general infrastructure to support the safety and security and wellbeing of staff and students,” he said.
This article originally appeared in The Australian.