The Tertiary Education Union has reminded Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern that there are plenty of ways her government can protect and enhance academic freedom.
In recent days the Prime Minister has been asked to comment on the case of University of Canterbury professor Anne-Marie Brady, telling media on Monday that she “absolutely” defends academic freedom.
The Tertiary Education Union welcomed the Prime Minister’s comments, but was at pains to remind her that Parliament, and tertiary institutions themselves, also have a legal obligation to enhance academic freedom.
Over the last few months, the media has covered police inquiries into actions taken against Professor Brady, and questioned whether they are tied to her academic critique of China. Earlier this week, the TEU, academics and human rights activists have issued statements calling on the government to do more to protect academic freedom.
The requirement to preserve and enhance academic freedom is set out in the Education Act 1989. The reason why these legal protections are in place is because the freedom of students and academic staff to engage in research and state controversial opinions, or put forward new ideas, is absolutely critical to our progress as a nation.
There are plenty of times in our history when new ideas, or controversial opinions, have helped us progress –and there will be plenty of times when the same will be true in the future. Recent news stories about Professor Brady have made clear that at no point should academic freedom be taken for granted.
Who knows what we currently hold to be true that could be be challenged in the future? One thing is for certain though: it is the preservation and enhancement of academic freedom that gives us the confidence to know that we will be able to find out.
Academic freedom is at the heart of what the tertiary education sector does. The Prime Minister knows as well as anyone else that research and inquiry are far less meaningful without debate and disagreement. However, she and her Education Minister, Chris Hipkins, do need to go further and not just speak in defence of academic freedom, but articulate how and why it needs to be enhanced.
The first step will be to include in the next tertiary education strategy a statement setting out how the Minister and Parliament will enhance academic freedom. The Minister could also commit to reporting to Parliament on progress each year, perhaps in a statement to the select committee.
This should be backed up with a requirement for every institution to set out how it will enhance academic freedom in its mission statement. Remarkably there are very few institutions that currently do this.
Institutions should also be expected to report on what they have done to enhance academic freedom in their end of year statements, with efforts made to ensure this quickly becomes best practice in the sector.