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Opinion //

The right’s ‘free speech crisis’ is an ideological attack on universities

The Liberal government denying funding to universities and student unions is the real threat to democratic speech.

Art by Deaundre Espejo

Importing rhetoric from the right in the UK and US, conservative politicians in Australia have for years stoked exaggerated moral panic about a ‘free speech crisis’ on university campuses. It’s a familiar story: universities are churning out ‘intolerant’ activists schooled in critical race and gender theory, shutting down ‘robust’ debate by ‘deplatforming’ right-wing speakers, pro-lifers, and TERFs. Drawing the ire of Canberra is nothing new for student activists, but what’s alarming is Education Minister Alan Tudge’s recent comments to The Australian that he is considering ways to “prevent compulsorily acquired student fees being used in an overtly political manner,” including by refusing funding to student unions that impede ‘free speech.’

After having effectively set in motion the demise of higher education in this country through decades of funding cuts, the government’s detest for universities comes as no surprise. The vitriol of conservatives is chiefly aimed at humanities departments, accused of promoting ‘cultural Marxism’ and post-structuralism. Tudge has even described universities themselves as ‘woke,’ taking a small contingent of vocal left-wing students and staff to be somehow representative of the institutions themselves. The fact that the overwhelming majority of university populations are uninvolved in the kind of radical politics that Tudge and the Liberals view as an existential threat is of no concern to them, because the narrative aligns perfectly well with their ideological project of starving universities of funding.

Each academic job loss — of which there have been many thousands — chips away at the diversity of opinion and capacity for free discussion on campus. Having one’s voice heard in the university and in society at large is already predetermined by a highly stratified and uneven playing field. Defending freedom of speech and academic freedom should mean fighting for job security and an end to casualisation. No staff member should feel that their job is at risk if they voice opinions that are unorthodox or critical of management. In ‘How casualisation crushes academic debate,’ the anonymous author writes: “Every time I feel compelled to disagree with something, even at a minor level, I hesitate. My future employment comes to mind, my livelihood hangs in the balance.” How can the Liberal government claim to care about freedom of academic inquiry when they — and complicit university managements — are enabling workplace conditions that cause academics to self-censor for fear of not having their contracts renewed?

The Model Code on Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom was recommended by former Chief Justice Robert French, appointed by former Education Minister Dan Tehan to conduct a review following conservative frenzy about the USyd Women’s Collective protest outside Bettina Arndt’s ‘Fake Rape Tour’ in 2018. Tudge is proposing to extend the French code — voluntarily adopted by some universities and applying to staff and administrators — to student organisations as well. However, this code does nothing to address the real structural barriers to free inquiry and speech faced by both staff and students. Threats to democratic speech on campus ultimately come from the government and university managements, not a minority of left-wing activists.

If the government does implement legislation penalising student unions for their political activities, it would be the latest in a long history of conservative attacks on student unions that have stifled student life, activism, and, ironically, the presence of open and ‘free’ debate on campus. The Howard government’s replacement of compulsory student unionism with voluntary student unionism (VSU) in 2006 was not only to the detriment of student services and a vibrant social community, but triggered the demobilisation of political involvement in universities across the country. Although the introduction of Student Services and Amenities Fees (SSAF) in 2010 partially brought student unions back to life, autonomy has never been fully regained.

To a certain extent, SSAF fees are already prevented from being used politically; funding for student unions is at the mercy of university managements that control SSAF allocations. USyd is obviously more likely to fund sports facilities for athletes providing them with good publicity than the activist projects that are a thorn in their side. Sydney University Sport & Fitness (SUSF) received over $5 million in SSAF while the Students’ Representative Council (SRC) received just under $2 million this year, placing it in a position where it had to choose between in-person elections and activism. As much as students love to complain about being harassed on Eastern Avenue, student elections are vital for lively political discussion. Labor Right’s move to permanently ban in-person campaigning at Monash University and the suppression of the right to poster at UTS are worrying precedents for declining democratic engagement and the depoliticisation of student unions.

This is not even to mention the suppression of free speech manifest in NSW Police’s shutdown of protests on campus last year, or how the vague terms of the University’s misconduct system have been routinely exploited to punish left-wing students. A lot is at stake for student unions in Australia, and we can see this by looking at how the culture wars have played out overseas. The French government, for example, launched an attack on the National Union of Students of France (UNEF) in April for holding minority-only meetings — the equivalent of banning the SRC’s autonomous collectives — accusing the union of racism against white people. In England, a recent campus free speech law allows ‘de-platformed’ speakers to sue, which opponents say might have the “opposite effect” to protecting free speech.

In the face of conservative pushback against universities and student unions, we must meet them not with compliance but with the determination to fight for truly democratic and free universities. The government’s overblown panic about free speech under threat from ‘woke’ students is a sign of the real threat to their ideology that student unions represent. In a climate where disciplines like Studies in Religion, Theatre and Performance Studies, Anthropology and Sociology are being scrapped because they’re deemed financially unsustainable, the profit-oriented model of higher education is the real danger to lively and diverse academic debate.

Come to the student counter-summit of the Australian Financial Review’s Higher Education Summit to protest Alan Tudge and university Vice-Chancellors on August 16th.