Academic Freedom – under threat?.


Just as it does with other civil liberties, the current government plays a little too fast and loose with academic freedom. Academic freedom is protected by law. Like the right to protest, or freedom of the media, or the right to silence, it acts as a restraint on the power of the state over individuals like you and I. It provides ‘a check and balance’ on the use of political, economic, and social power.

At heart it means that academics have both the right and responsibility to “question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions” (Education Act 1989 Section 161). Common sense would dictate that governments and tertiary education leaders would protect and reward the exercising of academic freedom as it is in the public good.

Overseas, challenges to academics freedom express themselves most brutally in the form of academics imprisoned, tortured, or killed for sharing their academic expertise or taking brave stands in opposition to powerful opponents. In the United States the attacks on scientists and academic who take evidence-based stands on climate change or any other issue that challenges religious orthodoxy range from abusive to intimidating.

Here in New Zealand the threats are pernicious rather than life-threatening. The government’s shouting down of Massey academic Mike Joy and Waikato academic Martin Thrupp, both of whom challenged government policies that do not stand up to academic scrutiny, are signs of a wider culture of government browbeating. In both cases, the government’s response to being challenged by research has been to accuse the academics of bias, impugn their reputation and imply that academic research does not matter.

Collectively we must stand against these attacks, as well as working out how to continue to practice academic freedom in hostile times. Part of the problem however is that academic freedom is an amorphous concept. It means more than free speech – an important right that everybody holds, including those of us working and studying in universities. However, it means less than an overriding right for academics to say whatever we like without fear of criticism.

Sometimes we talk about universities having academic freedom – an institution’s right to stand independent from other forces and powers outside its walls. Sometimes we talk about individual academics having academic freedom – a right to use their learning and expertise to challenge the powers outside their university’s walls. Sometimes we talk about individual academics holding academic freedom as a shield against their own university as it tries to manage, or worse, silence dissent and discussion among its employees.

In particular, we need to look after our new colleagues, for their good and for the good of future generations of New Zealanders. While many established New Zealand academics, having learnt their craft in a culture of academic freedom, continue to speak out, many young and aspiring academics are now much more reticent to do so. They know that their job relies on their ability to bring in external research funding and to protect the good reputation of their university. Many do not have job security because their employment agreements roll from funding contract to funding contract or course to course. They know it is safer to keep their head low.  This is certainly not in the interest of our profession or in the public interest.

Who gains when our government demeans and belittles not just academics but also their research? Who gains when our institutions make jobs precarious and new academics learn their craft in a polity that values subservience rather than debate?