Contrarian academic Peter Ridd has endorsed a bid by One Nation to protect freedom of speech on university campuses as part of a deal to pass the Coalition’s higher education reforms.
In comments to Guardian Australia, Ridd said legislating a definition of academic freedom devised by former chief justice Robert French would improve the “disastrous” state of freedom of speech and boost legal challenges such as his unfair dismissal case against James Cook University.
On Tuesday, the Sydney Morning Herald reported One Nation had offered to support the jobs ready graduate package in return for the legal protection, a 10% discount for students who pay fees upfront and reinstating a seven-year limit on full-time students deferring fees with government loans.
One Nation provides the Coalition with two crucial Senate votes, leaving it just one short of passing the bill which increases fees for some courses, including humanities, to fund fee cuts for other courses such as sciences and an overall cut in the government contribution.
Senators Pauline Hanson and Malcolm Roberts are outspoken defenders of Ridd, who expressed controversial views about climate change and the health of the Great Barrier Reef but was sacked by the university for the manner of his advocacy, not its content.
Ridd’s dismissal was upheld by the full federal court on the basis academic freedom does not give an “untrammelled right” to express professional opinions in breach of university codes of conduct.
In a 2019 review into freedom of speech on campus, French recommended that as part of academic freedom, academics should be allowed to “to make lawful public comment on any issue in their personal capacities”.
Universities fear legislating the definition could protect offensive speech outside an academic’s area of expertise, including racist or sexist speech.
Asked about the potential One Nation deal, Ridd said he supported “any moves to improve the disastrous situation at the moment where academic freedom of speech effectively does not exist”.
“At present universities are applying their vague codes of conduct on top of academic freedom of speech – this means academics have to be ‘respectful’ and ‘collegiate’,” he said. “Any robust debate is likely to seem disrespectful to somebody. If the French definition were applied, JCU would have been on even more shaky ground legally for my case.”
Innovative Research Universities executive director, Conor King, told Guardian Australia although universities all have policies to protect academic freedom, the French definition “drifts into” the separate issue of freedom of speech.
Including it in the bill would allow academic staff to comment on any issue – even unrelated to their field of research – in ways that are regulated for general staff.
King said One Nation appears to have negotiated amendments that are “politically fun” for them but have minor impact on the jobs ready graduate package.
“Universities are dealing with the reality of an agreement between those whose interests are not necessary aligned with the university sector,” he said.
“The Hanson amendments are at the edges … We would cope and adjust [if legislated].”
The National Tertiary Education Union national president Alison Barnes said although it agrees protections around academic freedom need to be strengthened this should not be done by “conflating it with the principles around freedom of speech” as Hanson’s amendment appears to do.
Academic freedom should “cover all staff” but only provide protection when they speak “within their field of expertise, not when they are speaking in a private capacity”.
Protection should be included in pay deals between university and their staff, not legislation, she said.
The Australian Technology Network executive director, Luke Sheehy, noted the proposal appeared to pre-empt the findings of a fresh review launched in August on adoption of the French model code on freedom of speech and academic freedom.
Higher education expert at the Australian National University, Andrew Norton, said the One Nation amendments leave the architecture of the package mostly intact.
The discount for students who pay upfront will largely benefit permanent residents and New Zealanders, who get commonwealth-supported places but not student loans, he said.
Norton said reforms that have already set a $100,000 cap on Help loans are a “better way of controlling” concerns about students over-using the system rather than a cap on time at university.
On Tuesday, Norton released an analysis challenging one of the government’s central claims about the package: that it will pay for 39,000 extra university places by 2023, including up to 15,000 in 2021.
Norton argues that increased flexibility will allow universities to dedicate spare funds from one course type – sub-bachelor, bachelor and postgraduate – to another, but in many instances this will apply a subsidy to existing students enrolled over the cap in each category.
As such they do not create “additional” university places but apply subsidies to students who already attend university.
Norton noted the package reallocates funding from metro universities to regional universities, but concluded that “the commonwealth’s estimate of 2021 places created by [the package] should be revised down to zero at a system level”.
Labor’s shadow education minister, Tanya Plibersek, said the analysis was “further proof that Scott Morrison would rather see young people on the dole queue than get an education”.