Only nine of the nation’s 42 universities have fully embraced a model code to protect free speech on campus, as a major government review pushes vice-chancellors to lead on promoting and safeguarding academic freedom. Elite Group of Eight universities, Monash University, the Australian National University (ANU) and the University of New South Wales (UNSW),  are also among 12 institutions shamed for either failing to adopt the code or not completing their plans to align with the academic freedom charter. After getting hold of the review by ex-Deakin University vice chancellor Sally Walker, UNSW hit back and said its academic freedom policies were more liberal than the government-endorsed free speech charter.

The universities praised for fully embracing the code are the Australian Catholic University, La Trobe University, RMIT University, Torrens University, the University of Newcastle, the University of Queensland, the University of the Sunshine Coast, the University of Sydney and the University of Western Australia. In the review commissioned by Education Minister Dan Tehan, Professor Walker recommended all tertiary governing bodies make an annual statement on how they are prioritising free speech. in August  Professor Walker was tasked with investigating whether universities are in alignment with the free speech code devised by former High Court chief justice Robert French. Mr Tehan said universities needed to adopt the model code by the end of last year.

“By fully adopting the French model code, universities can send a strong message to students, staff and the community about their values and commitment to freedom of speech and academic freedom,” he said. A UNSW spokesman said Professor Walker’s report failed to say that the university had not signed up because its policy is more advanced. “UNSW is totally committed to academic freedom and freedom of speech and our existing policies and procedures go further than the model code’s requirements, which impose certain limits,” he said. “UNSW’s position is clear and unambiguous: freedom of expression at UNSW is no different to freedom of speech across Australia. The only constraint that we place on freedom of speech is the law.”

The report recommends that free speech should become a regular feature of staff training and meetings.  Mr Tehan expressed hope that universities will agree to include progress on adopting the code in their annual reports. Professor Walker said that universities should all adopt a single, overarching policy on free speech and vice-chancellors had to lead on safeguarding freedom. “Universities that adopted a single, overarching code or policy have addressed academic freedom and freedom of speech in a more authoritative manner,” she said. “I have recommended that the sector develop more transparent reporting arrangements and a heightened role for governing bodies, but university leaders have to provide the day to day leadership to create an environment where freedom of speech and academic freedom are understood and supported.”

Professor Walker’s review comes after a year of bruising free speech controversies on Australian campuses. UNSW apologised in August after it took down a tweet linking to an article advocating UN action on human rights violations in Hong Kong, which offended Chinese law students at the university and was attacked in the Chinese government-owned newspaper Global Times. University of Queensland is also facing defamation action from student Drew Pavlou, who claims he was suspended for organising anti-China protests on campus and questioning Chinese influence at the university. The university disputes this. The Walker Review found six universities had not aligned with the French Code, including UNSW and Monash, and six universities had not finalised their moves to apply the charter.

An ANU spokesman said the university was working to fully align with the code within weeks. “!n 2018, and well before the French Review, ANU reaffirmed its unwavering commitment to academic freedom with our statement on academic freedom. Our then Chancellor, Professor the Hon Gareth Evans, worked on the French Review,” he said. We are now in the process of ensuring the spirit and substance of the French Model is embedded in and aligns with all our relevant policies.”

Source: Compiled by APN from media reports

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