The growing concern about academic freedom and free speech on university campuses typically relates to illiberal student activists shutting down debate. But there is potentially a more subtle threat to free speech in higher education coming from foreign governments, especially China.
At a CIS breakfast on Monday, NSW Education Minister Rob Stokes outlined his concerns regarding Australian universities being too reliant on international students — to a point that undermines academic independence.
“When academics who criticise certain countries are hauled before senior diplomats to explain themselves, or when universities self-censor by using teaching materials that conform with foreign government propaganda so as to not upset international student cohorts, we have a duty as educators to speak out”, he said.
This may be controversial in some timid quarters but it shouldn’t be. To be clear, no one is suggesting that having large numbers of international students in Australia is a bad thing. Education is Australia’s third-largest export, and international students are an essential part of our higher education sector and university culture.
But given recent cases where academic independence appears to have been undermined on topics regarding Chinese politics, we should be vigilant.
Of course, some people will argue this problem at universities is imagined or exaggerated. Is there any concrete evidence of widespread political interference from China in Australian higher education? Surely, the more fee-paying international students studying here, the better for our economy? And shouldn’t we be far more concerned about attempts by local university student activists to restrict free speech?
Even if we concede the sceptics may have a point, one thing is certain: this is an issue worth debating. We can’t be afraid of identifying potential overseas threats to our universities’ independence out of fear of upsetting foreign governments.
Kudos to Minister Stokes for kick-starting the debate.