Andrew Geddis, Professor of Law at University of Otago| Te WhareWānanga o Otāgo challenges us all to think about how we respond when academic freedom comes under threat.

The recent revelation that Auckland University of Technology cancelled an event commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre following complaints from and a meeting with China’s Vice Consul General Xiao Yewen raises at least two immediate concerns for academic staff. It also raises the question of how our union ought to respond to such concerns.

While noting that AUT’s Vice Chancellor Derek McCormack denies that the cancellation was a direct result of Chinese diplomatic requests, instead saying it merely was “a booking issue”, the very fact that a government would seek to dictate what is discussed on our campuses is problematic. It is thus a good thing that our Ministry of Foreign Affairs has now told Chinese officials to, in effect, keep their noses out of campus activities.  

That’s a message that all governments, be it our own or those of other people, need to hear. In this context, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s clear defence of the value of freedom of speech on campus is especially welcome: “We guard that,that is part of who we are. And I think it is important for those that may takea different view that we are very clear on our expectations.”

But beyond the spectre of overseas influence over domestic political discussions lies a larger and more insidious issue; the impact of funding pressures and funder desires on academic freedom.

This is something that runs through modern academic life. The threat to withdraw funding can generate an academic version of Murphy’s golden rule: whoever has the gold, makes the rules.

In relation to AUT’s actions, it surely was not irrelevant that apparently some 10 percent of AUT’s annual revenue comes from fees paid by overseas Chinese students.That’s a lot of money for university administrators to worry about. And insofaras the Chinese Government is able to exercise control over where its students choose to study, there’s pressure to ensure the money tap stays open.

That helps to explain why the response of AUT’s Vice Chancellor to the Chinese diplomatic request was a far from full-throated rejection of any attempt to dictate what may and may not take place on his campus.

Rather, in a follow-up email he told China’s consulate that he was “happy” that his purported “concerns” about the booking for the commemoration event “coincided”with those of the Chinese representatives. “The university”, the diplomats we reassured, “has no wish to deliberately offend the government and the people of China”.

Sadly, in the current funding climate we probably cannot expect much more than this from University administrators. Which makes it all the more important that where such funding related threats to academic freedom emerge, our collective union voice is heard loud and clear.

Here I think we perhaps could have done better. While a TEU spokesperson did tell Radio NZ that AUT had put forward “a fairly lame reason to have cancelled the event”, there was no explicit message from us as a union about the value of academic freedom and the need to protect it against all threats.

Now, of course I know that the TEU stands firmly for academic freedom and is opposed to any funder demands that undermine this. But I don’t think that we should assume that the public knows this. And unless we say it loudly whenever such threats arise in any form, then we can’t expect anyone else to say it for us.