Ideas@TheCentre brings you ammunition for conversations around the table. 3 short articles from CIS researchers emailed every Friday on the issues of the week.
The most concerning aspect of the current debate about free speech in Australian universities has been the complacent attitudes of Australian higher education leaders.
During Bettina Arndt’s recent speech at Sydney University on ‘rape culture’, riot police had to be called onto the campus to allow the event to proceed, after security guards were overwhelmed by demonstrators blocking audience members from attending the venue.
However, according to Sydney Vice-Chancellor, Michael Spence, the demonstration allegedly showed that “free speech is alive and well” in universities; the student demonstrators were supposedly exercising their legitimate right to protest and engage in counter-free speech.
In reality, the violent scenes of verbal and physical abuse witnessed were an example of the ‘no platforming’ phenomena prevalent in North America, which has seen numerous so-called controversial speakers banned and prevented from speaking on university and college campuses because their views are deemed ‘offensive’ or ‘hurtful’ to some students.
But according to Vicki Thomson, the Chief executive of the Group of Eight peak lobby ground representing Australia’s leading universities, there is no need for universities to take action on free speech on campus because she “couldn’t remember a particularly violent protest [on university campuses] in the past 10 years.”
Thomson was responding to the suggestion by Federal Education Minister, Dan Tehan, that Australian universities adopt the charter — the Statement on Principles of Free Expression — introduced by the University of Chicago in 2014 and subsequently adopted by 45 other American universities.
But if university administrators like Spence and Thomson are unwilling to even acknowledge free speech problems, it is difficult to trust them to self-regulate free speech solutions.
These attitudes suggest that stronger government regulation may be needed to actively spur universities to properly protect freedom of thought and expression on Australian campuses.
My new report, University Freedom Charters: How best to protect free speech on Australian campuses, therefore proposes a new regulatory framework — based on the polices announced in the Canadian province of Ontario — which would hold universities accountable for implementing and complying with free speech policies, or have them risk financial penalties.
Tying funding to actively protecting free speech on campus would focus the minds of university administrators on free speech problems — especially the minds, once funding was directly at stake, of administrators who claim there is no problem and mistake legitimate protest with disruptive conduct interfering with the free speech of others.
As I told The Australian this week, universities should consider the report a “shot across the bows.”
If university administrators don’t like the idea of government regulation, the power to forestall this is in their hands. They should take Minister Tehan’s advice, and put in place robust free speech policies to ensure universities remain true universities committed to free and open inquiry.
The ABC’s Q&A program is a curious beast. Even when there is broad agreement among panel members about numerous matters, the focus is on their differences of opinion. And so it was on Monday night, when I was on the panel for a ‘teaching’ special.
Despite this being the theme, there was inevitably a question about school funding. Most of the panel acknowledged the fact that although socioeconomic and educational disadvantage is more prevalent in the public school sector, it is not confined to there — and there was unanimous agreement that need is an important principle for school funding. Public school teacher Eddie Woo and former public school and Catholic school teacher Gabbi Stroud shared my positive view on school choice.
However, the questions from the audience were mostly pertinent to the teaching theme — Australia’s low standards of maths achievement and low participation in higher level maths, whether it makes sense to model Australia’s education system on Finland’s given their starkly different demographic and cultural contexts, how to elevate the status of teaching, and whether standardised testing is changing the nature of school education.
This is where things became highly charged. My opinion on standardised testing is that — used judiciously — it provides an essential objective reference point for parents, researchers and schools to assess student achievement and progress. Teacher judgement is not consistent or infallible.
Gabbi Stroud has recently published a memoir on her experiences of being a teacher and puts NAPLAN at the top of her list of reasons for leaving the profession. Her response was emotive, blaming standardised testing for causing harmful levels of stress for teachers and students, and for damaging education. It is hard not to feel sympathy for someone who feels such personal despair about her decision to leave her chosen career. But we cannot lose sight of the fact that schools are for children, not for teachers. Yes, it is important for teachers to be valued and respected but for teaching to be truly regarded as a profession there must be accountability.
Right now, one in four students leaves school barely literate. When that number gets close to zero, I will celebrate the abolition of NAPLAN with elation.
The world reached an incredible milestone last month. For the first time in recorded history, more than 50% of the entire global population can be classified as middle class or wealthier.
The US-based Brookings Institution has estimated that over 3.8 billion people now have enough discretionary income to be classified as middle class or wealthier. And most of the recent growth in the middle class has occurred in the developing countries of Asia. The Brookings Institution’s estimate is based on the number of households that spend between $11 and $110 (in US dollars) per person each day.
Obviously, any definition of ‘middle-class’ is subjective and contestable (for example, some might argue that home ownership is critical to being middle class). Nonetheless, these developments represent an unambiguous triumph over poverty — which would have been unimaginable even 20 years ago, let alone 200 years ago.
However, it seems the news has attracted little attention in Australia — despite the fact that many Australians care deeply about tackling global poverty. It seems we are blasé — or perhaps just oblivious — when developing countries make huge strides in lifting the living standards of their citizens.
In part, it could represent uncomfortable truth for some of us: that free markets and liberalised trade actually work. And not just for the rich; but also for the millions who lift themselves out of poverty each year. But it could also reflect the negativity bias in news generally. Bad news sells; and people are simply less interested in good news.
It also doesn’t help that statistics are difficult to ‘sell’ as a story. Statistics do not resonate easily with most people or stir up empathy or emotion. A proclamation that the global middle class will reach four billion by 2020 does little to engage a person’s emotions.
But if you say that a mother in India can now afford a refrigerator and washing machine for her home — there’s a story we can all comprehend and celebrate. And she is one of those 3.8 billion people.