What academic freedom means in contemporary Aotearoa.

Jane Kelsey · University of Auckland

Professor Jane Kelsey, TEU Te Whare Wānanga o Tamaki Makaurau | University of Auckland branch member, was National President of AUSNZ in 1999, and awarded the AUS Academic Freedom Award in 2001 and TEU Award of Excellence in the field of academic freedom in 2015. Jane is one of New Zealand's best-known critical legal scholars on globalisation, neoliberalism and Te Tiriti o Waitangi. She has taught at the University of Auckland since 1979, and retired in February 2021. Here, ahead of TEU's Academic Freedom Conference, Professor Kelsey discusses what academic freedom means in Aotearoa New Zealand today.

“Academic freedom” does not exist in a vacuum. It is valued and protected because of the unique public functions it serves. Just as the media and journalists enjoy time-honoured protections to enable them to fulfill their duties as the Fourth Estate, so universities and academics have historically performed a quasi-constitutional role by testing and contesting perceived truths, advancing the boundaries of knowledge, and talking truth to power as “critic and conscience of society”.

That is why academic freedom cannot be simplistically equated with freedom of speech which happens to be exercised within institutions of higher education. Freedom of speech is a personal right or liberty that is considered “universal”. As we see in contemporary debates, its meaning and application tends to depend on one’s ideological perspective and the interpretative context. The extent to which freedom of speech can be legitimately circumscribed is also highly contested, with views ranging from libertarian absolutism to a balancing of competing rights that recognises power asymmetries and vulnerabilities.

Freedom of speech applies to academics as much as to any other individual, and academics’ exercise of that freedom is subject to similar contest over its scope and limitations. But freedom of speech is not the same as academic freedom.

Academic freedom is not a license for a libertarian free-for-all.  It is vested in academics because of our unique quasi-constitutional role and needs to be exercised with appropriate scholarly rigour to achieve that public end. Higher education institutions have a corresponding responsibility to ensure those functions can be fulfilled. The requirement that universities accept a role as “critic and conscience of society” complements academic freedom and conveys both a public responsibility and accountability.

When defending the importance of academic freedom and the critic and conscience role we need to recognise that higher education, especially universities and their academics, has always been the realm of an elite. Ideologically, they have performed an important hegemonic role for capitalism, patriarchy and colonialism. At the same time, the unique public good obligations of universities have created the space for the development, articulation and transfer of critical ideas.

Over time, the social, intellectual, ideological and political context within which academic freedom has been exercised has shifted. The heydays of academic freedom have often occurred at times of significant upheaval, as academics seized the available space and pushed the boundaries, taking significant risks along the way. The most recent heyday in Aotearoa New Zealand accompanied the neo-liberalisation of education from the later 1980s, which I have described in a separate piece on the recent history of academic freedom and the role of the unions.


Transformations of institutional structures, governance and funding under the market model of neoliberalism have erected new barriers to the exercise of academic freedom. Those shifts include the introduction of competition between and within tertiary institutions; reliance on non-state funding from student customers, donors, research contracts and international students; managerialism and executive hierarchies that displaced collective forums for debate and governance; casualisation, precarious employment, and bullying. These and multiple other internal dysfunctions narrowed the space for academic freedom and increased the risks of its exercise.

The forms of higher education institutions have also changed. The education and research roles of universities, colleges of education, polytechnics and in Aotearoa, wananga, have blurred as they were made competitors in a single education market, making academic freedom more of an issue beyond the universities.

Over four decades, the neoliberal model of tertiary education has become normalised and embedded in tertiary institutions. Today, the exercise of academic freedom seems much more precarious.

I remember posing the question back in the 1990s: how do we ensure that universities not only survive the destructive forces of neoliberalism, but are able to transcend neoliberalism? Exercising and protecting academic freedom is essential to achieving both those outcomes.

But we must also be careful to maintain its integrity and not to overload the concept in ways that erode its legitimacy. In particular, academic freedom and the associated critical and conscience roles cannot become detached from their quasi-constitutional and public good functions. That carries responsibilities on us to ensure the intellectual rigour that is integral to academic research, teaching and external engagement.

That imperative applies equally when academic freedom is harnessed to support battles within tertiary institutions. Academic freedom loses its value and potency if it is misappropriated to fight political and employment battles that have a different rationale.

There is a further and growing risk that protection of academic freedom becomes confused with the freedom of speech debate and the overused rhetoric of “wokeness”.  As noted above, academic freedom is a form of freedom of speech, but its context and function are different and that distinct rationale needs to be maintained and emphasised in the current discourse.

As a final point, the relevance of academic freedom for academics in non-university institutions needs to be clearly and convincingly articulated, while bearing the limited scope of “academic freedom” in mind. There are many compelling illustrations that can make that point. Recent exposures of institutional racism and failure to meet Tiriti obligations, deficiencies in approaches to trade training that contribute to public harms, such as leaky buildings, and the public policy dimensions of healthcare and nursing education in light of the Covid-19 pandemic are all contemporary examples that highlight the importance of academic freedom in the non-university context.