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Revealed: 10 universities sought to strike academic freedom from job contracts after the first Peter Ridd case

28 May 2020

3:31 PM

28 May 2020

3:31 PM

Michael McNally, QLD Division Secretary of the National Tertiary Education Union, speaks to Gideon Rozner on The Heretic podcast about how university administrators are interfering with academic and intellectual freedom on campus.

Michael McNally: They are so focused on prestige, on brand reputation, on positive press. I’m continually surprised by the things that university managements do. They do things that you think is just counterintuitive, but they do it because they want to be prestigious institutions. It’s all about their reputation, it’s all about attracting the next set of students. And we could have a discussion about competition in higher education, whether that’s a good thing or not, on another time. But they simply can’t be trusted on issues like academic freedom.

Gideon Rozner: And so, in a workplace relations or industrial relations scenes, it’s impossible to function in your job as an academic without academic freedom.

Michael McNally: That’s correct. And, and as I said before, you get these high-profile cases where it explodes outside the university, but the systems of control and management, within universities, are pushing against academic freedom all the time.

Gideon Rozner: Michael explains that the union fights hard to ensure that enterprise bargaining agreements, the industrial agreements that are, in effect, the employment contracts between universities and their staff, contain a clause guaranteeing the right to academic freedom. In fact, the academic freedom clause in Peter’s EBA would become a key issue in his court case against James Cook University.

Michael McNally: All of the agreements that we have with the major public universities in Australia have academic and intellectual freedom clauses. It’s something that we have in each and every enterprise agreement, and unfortunately we have to rely upon on a fairly frequent basis.


Gideon Rozner: But alarmingly, universities have repeatedly tried to strip these academic freedom clauses out in the negotiations with the union. JCU is one such university. And at one point during our interview, Michael shows me a page from an enterprise agreement drafted by JCU. The entire academic freedom clause is crossed out.

Gideon Rozner: Have these intellectual freedom clauses, as far as you’re aware, been contentious with … in any negotiations with employers?

Michael McNally: Yes. Clearly, they have. Over the last few years, there’s been a number of very high-profile cases, some of which have been our members who we’ve defended. And I think as a result of the complications that these academic freedom clauses cause managers who just want to be able to say, ‘You can do this,’ or, ‘You can’t do that,’ they have tried to remove them in the last round, where we think about 10 universities sought to remove their academic and intellectual freedom clauses from their…

Gideon Rozner: Ten universities?

Michael McNally: Yep. So JCU did it, and you can see, Gideon, but unfortunately we can’t show your listeners, that there’s a draft from the university managers, in the last round of bargaining, which basically removes the entirety of the intellectual freedom clause. We obviously can’t agree to a proposed agreement that removes our intellectual freedom clause. Same thing at JCU, we said that that was … a die-in-a-ditch condition for us. The University of Western Australia definitely tried to remove it, Curtin University definitely tried to remove it, but about 10 universities, in this previous round of bargaining, have tried to remove it. And Peter’s example makes it a no-brainer as to why they want to do it. They want to be the ones who decide whether or not something is academic freedom or it’s misconduct.

Listen to the full interview on the IPA’s new podcast The Heretic: Inside Peter Ridd’s fight for freedom of speech on climate change.

Listen to The Hereticon Apple Podcasts.

Gideon Rozner is Director of Policy at the Institute of Public Affairs. Join as a member at www.ipa.org.au.

Illustration: IPA.

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