Academic freedom is increasingly under threat on Australian campuses, and widespread speech codes leave universities unprepared to combat the danger.
The latest threat comes from a new source: Chinese students, on four known occasions this year, have pressured academics to modify material to align with Chinese government foreign policy.
This came after an offended student covertly recorded, and uploaded, their censorious demands. “You have to consider all the students’ feelings,” the student says in the widely shared video. “You have to show your respect”.
The lecturer appropriately responded: “If you feel offended about it, that is your opinion.”
In other instances universities have not stood up to the pressure. The University of Sydney apologised after a lecturer used a map that displayed disputed territory as part of India and Bhutan rather than within China’s borders.
Monash University has withdrawn a textbook that included a quiz question which offended Chinese students. The Monash academic who set the quiz was temporarily suspended, and has now voluntarily left the university following the furore.
A serious dilemma
These complaints, in the context of close government monitoring of Chinese student activity and growing nationalism in China, raise a serious dilemma for Australia’s universities. There are now more than 130,000 students from China in Australia. They make up almost a third of the $22 billion international student market. This is a massive cash-mule for Australia’s universities that they are nervous to disturb.
Nevertheless, if our universities are to fulfil their fundamental role, to teach and research, they must be places where academics and students are free to explore ideas without fears of mob censorship. Simply, that some students find an idea offensive is not a good enough reason for it to be silenced. Education requires hearing a range of viewpoints.
Importantly, we must show students from other cultures, as well as the next generation of Australians, that free societies defend free expression.
A culture of free academic inquiry is also essential for our universities to maintain their international reputation, on which the international student market depends.
Free speech under threat
As it stands, Australia’s universities are failing to protect free speech and are totally ill-equipped to address these latest threats.
The Institute of Public Affairs’ Free Speech on Campus Audit 2016 found eight in 10 universities stifle free expression. There have been incidents of guest speakers and students being hounded off campus.
The University of Western Australia and Flinders University both rejected Bjorn Lomborg’s Consensus Centre after he was targeted by students, academics and media for his views on climate change policy.
Australia’s universities also maintain policies that prevent “insulting” and “unwelcome” comments, “offensive” language, and, in some cases, hurt “feelings”.
For example, the University of Newcastle, the location of one of the aforementioned incidents, prevents behaviour that “offends” on the basis of “nationality”. Disturbingly, the student who felt “offended” by the listing of Hong Kong and Taiwan has potential standing for their complaint under the university’s speech codes. How can the university stand up for its academics when its own policies foolishly stifle free expression?
Missing the point of university study
These issues do not just pertain to international students.
Last year University of Melbourne lecturer Lauren Rosewarne warned “many students are now far more likely to come to class with their views fully formed before I even open my mouth”.
She notes, in the context of gender studies, that students interrupt her in lectures and refuse to do assigned readings because of their pre-existing prejudice against the content. Refusing to explore ideas defeats the entire purpose of universities.
Universities must show international and domestic students alike that they are most welcome to study on our campuses. However, all students must respect fundamental Australian values and appreciate the core feature of a liberal education system which challenges, not coddles, students.
The issues surrounding Chinese students present a perfect opportunity for universities to send a positive signal that they will no longer cave to those seeking to silence.
The first step is to review and reform existing university speech policies that limit free expression. This will strengthen the hand of academics, when they inevitably face threats in future, and create a new culture of free academic debate.
If universities are to continue calling themselves universities, and not become submissive teaching factories, they must jealously guard free expression against all threats.
By Matthew Lesh