House of Representatives

Higher Education Support Amendment (Freedom of Speech) Bill 2020

Second Reading Speech

Mr TEHAN (Wannon - Minister for Education)

I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

The Higher Education Support Amendment (Freedom of Speech) Bill 2020 will provide stronger protections for academic freedom and freedom of speech in Australia, by giving effect to recommendations from the 2019 independent review into freedom of speech in higher education undertaken by the Honourable Robert French AC, former Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia.

The bill amends the Higher Education Support Act 2003 (HESA) to:

provide a new definition of academic freedom that enshrines in law principles of freedom of expression that are an essential part of the life of our universities, for both academic staff and students;
substitute the existing term 'free intellectual inquiry' in relevant provisions with the terms 'freedom of speech' and 'academic freedom', to align the language of those provisions with Mr French's proposed model code for the protection of freedom of speech and academic freedom in Australian higher education providers.

In replacing 'free intellectual inquiry', the amendments appropriately distinguish freedom of speech as a common freedom from elements of freedom of speech and intellectual inquiry that are central and distinctive aspects of academic freedom. Key characteristics of academic freedom are set out in the new definition.

The Australian government is strongly committed to supporting academic freedom and freedom of speech in Australian universities. Our universities are critical institutions where ideas are debated and challenged. We must ensure they are places that protect all free speech, even where what is being said may be unpopular or challenging.

That is why, in November 2018, following reports of concerning incidents on university campuses across Australia, I announced the independent review into freedom of speech, undertaken by Mr French.

Mr French's review was a cooperative and consultative project that respected Australian universities' long held and deeply valued autonomy. As Mr French observed in his review: even a limited number of incidents seen as affecting freedom of speech may have an adverse impact on public perception of the higher education sector. I released the final report in April last year and announced that the government had accepted all his recommendations.

The central recommendation was adoption of a model code on freedom of speech and academic freedom across the higher education sector. Consistent with this approach, Mr French recommended amendments to the Higher Education Support Act and the Higher Education Standards Framework (Threshold Standards) legislative instrument to align this legislation with the model code.

The amendments I am introducing today are one of three key elements in the government's commitment to strengthen protections for academic freedom and freedom of speech in Australian higher education.

In addition, we are working with and supporting universities to align their policy frameworks with Mr French's model code.

The French model code sets out a framework for universities that protects freedom of speech and academic freedom as paramount values of Australian universities.

All universities have undertaken to adopt the model code, in a way that is consistent with their individual legislative frameworks.

In August 2020, to support their efforts in implementing the code, I announced a review by lawyer and former Vice-Chancellor of Deakin University Professor (Emeritus) Sally Walker AM to evaluate the alignment of university policies with the principles of the model code.

A third element is focused on supporting the work of institutions and the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency to monitor compliance with relevant quality standards.

This will involve making changes to the Higher Education Standards Framework (Threshold Standards) legislative instrument to align its language with HESA and the model code.

As work to implement the model code is well advanced across our university sector, these amendments are necessary to ensure consistency between the legislation and university statutes, and to support regulators and universities alike, in promoting academic freedom and freedom of speech in higher education campuses across Australia.

Mr French identified support for academic freedom, freedom of speech and institutional autonomy as the three central tenets of his model code.

More than 56 years ago, in August 1964, Prime Minister Robert Menzies gave voice to the importance of these elements. Speaking at the University of New South Wales, Mr Menzies described the right and duty of universities and academics to pursue new knowledge as 'of the most vital importance for human progress in all fields of knowledge'.

He noted that a university that treated an academic as no more than a person 'hired to study as directed and to teach in accordance with rules laid down by other people, would be an extremely strange university; it would have failed to understand the immense importance of true academic freedom.'

In the history of western civilisation, from the death of Socrates nearly 2½ thousand years ago to the Cold War era that helped shape modern geopolitics, scholars and the institutions that support and nurture them have been subject to internal and external incursions on their freedom to explore, understand, critique, engage with, and disseminate knowledge about the world.

The first quarter of the 21st century is no exception. Australia's university sector is affected by pressures at home and abroad that may diminish academic freedom on campus. It is vital to Australia's sovereignty and our moral, social, political and economic wellbeing that universities, their staff and students, and their governance bodies be empowered to resist these incursions. The legislation that regulates higher education should support them in this task.

The government considers that adoption of the French model code is the most effective means to ensure Australia's higher education providers are supported to uphold freedom of speech and academic freedom, protecting Australia's reputation for quality higher education.

The consistency of language to be achieved by the measures in this bill will facilitate adoption of, and compliance with, the code, and provide for more consistent and transparent policies in relation to freedom of expression and academic freedom across the university sector, including key elements, principles, and any necessary limitations imposed on these freedoms.

I commend the bill.

Debate adjourned.