Academics strike over freedom of speech

The University of Melbourne faced a strike by members of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) last Wednesday over claims the university intended to remove current academic and intellectual freedom protections.

The union called the strike as part of a campaign for a new enterprise agreement after negotiations had gone on for 16 months. According to the union, about 300 members of staff participated.

The president of the NTEU’s Melbourne branch, Steve Adams, said negotiations had reached an impasse on a range of issues, but particularly over the university’s plan to drop current academic and intellectual freedom protections from the agreement.

The union believes the changes will reduce legal protections for staff who make controversial or unwelcome public comments.

“Academic and intellectual freedom protections are vital to ensure that staff are able to speak without fear or favour within their areas of expertise without it affecting their position,” Adams said.

“Removing those protections from the legally enforceable enterprise agreement severely weakens those protections.”

The union says it is also concerned by university plans to split the current agreement into two, with one covering academics and the other professional staff.

Under Melbourne’s proposal, the revised agreement would change the current recognition of intellectual freedom as a “fundamental principle of the university” to a brief acknowledgement that the university “is committed to academic freedom as stated in its council regulations”.

In challenging this, the union claims the university wants to downgrade existing protections.

Adams described the proposal to split the existing agreement into two as a “divide and conquer” strategy among staff and as having no real justification.

“In fact, the clear trend in Australian universities over the last few rounds of bargaining has been where there have been separate agreements for academic and general staff, to consolidate them into one agreement covering all staff,” he said.

“This has to be more efficient, and ensure that all staff are treated equally.”

The University of Melbourne does have an academic ‘freedom of expression’ policy that is set out in a state act of parliament establishing the institution. The policy is also listed in its council regulations.

A university spokeswoman said the university firmly believed academic freedom was fundamental to academic employment and deserved to have the highest protection by having it enshrined in university council policy.

“The proposed academic agreement makes explicit this commitment, continuing the 2013 agreement. There is no intent to change this policy nor to compromise the university’s unwavering commitment to its terms,” she said.

“Importantly, we also make clear in our proposed agreement that exercising the right to academic freedom cannot be framed as misconduct or grounds for dismissal.”

She noted that industrial action was heavily regulated in Australia and was limited to periods of industrial bargaining. As such, it did not always reflect the work that was being achieved at the negotiation table.

“Melbourne University has actively engaged with the union to replace an outdated document with tailored agreements for academic and professional staff that are contemporary and relevant.

“The university is strongly committed to building agreements that underpin and promote, rather than sit uncomfortably alongside, our status as Australia’s number one university.”

She said the university would continue to negotiate with the union and other representatives to resolve bargaining and was confident the process would deliver good outcomes for staff and the university’s mission.

Matter of concern

In a commentary on threats to the freedom of Australian academics to speak freely on public issues, Katharine Gelber, a professor of politics and public policy at the University of Queensland, says the issue has become a matter of real concern.

Gelber refers to news reports last year that suggested some universities were under pressure to censor material that might “upset” the large numbers of Chinese students now studying in Australia.

“There are other real concerns about free speech in universities,” Gelber writes. “Now is the time to expand understandings of academic freedom and to institutionally support its status.

"Any attempt to remove the principle of academic freedom from staff enterprise agreements should be interpreted as watering down its protection. But there seems little prospect of that actually happening, regardless of claims by the union to that effect.”