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Academic freedom

1. Introduction

1.1.   The Tertiary Education Union Te Hautū Kahurangi o Aotearoa (TEU) broadly supports the principles contained in the UNESCO statement “Recommendation concerning the status of higher education teaching personnel – November 1997” particularly as they pertain to the securing of individual and institutional rights to academic freedom and the responsibilities associated with this.  These include, but are not limited to, the right to freedom of teaching and discussion, freedom to express opinions about tertiary education institutes and the tertiary education system, freedom from institutional censorship and freedom to participate in professional or representative bodies.

1.2.   As such, the TEU is committed to ensuring the promotion and protection of academic freedom in the work we do to support individual members and at the level of government legislation and institutional policy, recognising that there are two fundamental aspects to this:

i.      academic freedom of the institution to make appropriate decisions on academic and related matters, and,

ii.      academic freedom of the individual within an institution.

2. Institutional and individual autonomy and accountability

2.1.   In order for academic freedom to be preserved at both the institutional and individual level, tertiary education institutions must retain the right to make decisions pertaining to their management and academic programmes without undue external interference.

2.2.   In this respect, the TEU notes and supports the following sections of the Education Amendment Act 1990, No.80, Part 14:

i.      Section 161 (1): It is declared to be the intention of Parliament in enacting the provisions of this Act relating to institutions that academic freedom and the autonomy of institutions are to be preserved and enhanced.

ii.      Section 161 (2) which states that ‘academic freedom’, in relation to an institution, means: The freedom of academic staff and students, within the law, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions; the freedom of academic staff and students to engage in research; the freedom of the institution and its staff to regulate the subject matter of courses taught at the institution; the freedom of the institution and its staff to teach and assess students in the manner they consider best promotes learning; the freedom of the institution through its chief executive to appoint its own staff.

iii.      Section 161 (3): In exercising their academic freedom and autonomy, institutions shall act in a manner that is consistent with: (a) the need for the maintenance by institutions of the highest ethical standards and the need to permit public scrutiny to ensure the maintenance of those standards; and (b) the need for accountability by institutions and the proper use by institutions of resources allocated to them.

iv.      Section 161 (4): In the performance of their functions the councils and chief executives of institutions, ministers, and authorities and agencies of the Crown shall act in all respects so as to give effect to the intention of Parliament as expressed in this section.

2.3.   The TEU believes that the right of academic freedom carries with it the duty to use that freedom in a responsible way.  The union encourages and supports its members in the expression of their academic freedom, as long as this occurs within the constraints of current law.

2.4.   The TEU further believes in regard to the principles outlined in Section 161 (2) that these protections should also extend to general staff employees who are involved in teaching or research, or who wish to avail themselves of these protections in the course of their employment.  To this end, the TEU would support an amendment to this and any other relevant sections of the Education Act.

2.5.   In addition to the statements contained in Section 161 (3), the TEU also supports the requirement in the NZ Academic Audit Unit’s audit guidelines for universities that evidence be provided to illustrate how each institution is meeting its role as critic and conscience of society.[1] Such requirements ensure that universities remain accountable to society in general, to students and to their employees, especially in regards to individual rights of academic freedom.

2.6.   The TEU also supports additions to the quality assessment guidelines issued by ITP quality and the Tertiary Education Commission for institutes of technology and wānanga that require these TEIs to provide evidence of policies and practices that support academic freedom rights of their employees.

3. The role of critic and conscience

3.1.   The TEU notes and supports Section 162, (4) (a) (v) of the Education Act, which states that a defining characteristic of universities is that they accept a role as critic and conscience of society.  For employees working in universities and employees of other TEIs engaged in teaching and research, the exercise of academic freedom extends in TEU’s view to the right to critique tertiary sector and institutional strategy, policy and practices without fear of censure.

4. Institutional governance

4.1.   In order to give effect to the intention of Parliament to ensure academic freedom, it is TEU’s view that tertiary institution councils should provide a balance of skills and backgrounds that reflect national and regional interests, treaty partnership rights and responsibilities and the demographics of their particular communities.  We oppose reducing the number of council members to below the present 12 – 20 formula (as is the case for university and wānanga councils).  For this reason, we also oppose the Education Act amendment of May 2010 which has reduced institute of technology/polytechnic councils to eight representatives, half of whom are ministerial appointments.

5. Application of individual rights to academic freedom

5.1.   The TEU considers that the ability to exercise academic freedom must apply equally to all employees.  Consequently, an appropriate clause concerning academic freedom should be included in all employment agreements, whether they be collective, individual, fixed-term, permanent or part-time.

As passed by Conference 9th November 2010

NZ Academic Audit Unit September 2009 “Cycle 4 academic audits of NZ universities 2008 – 2012 – academic audit evaluation questions” pg. 8

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