Senator FIFIELD (Victoria) (10.54 a.m.)-The genesis of this inquiry was the concern expressed by many students at both secondary and tertiary level about the perceptions of academic bias on campus, the reasons for this and avenues of redress and appeal. Government senators have stated, as though it is evidence of a grand conspiracy, that Young Liberals, Liberal Students and other campus Liberals argued for the establishment of such an inquiry. They did. Senate inquiries are often instigated by concerns expressed by members of the community, and this inquiry was no exception.
Although he did not agree with this particular reference, I nevertheless wish to thank Senator Marshall for his chairmanship of the inquiry. He is certainly one of the better and more even-handed committee chairs in this place.
In moving the motion to establish this inquiry, I thought it was important to ensure that students at school or university are not discriminated against or fed a particular ideological or political view. I was and am keenly aware of the power imbalance between students and institutions and the relative weakness of students. Our schools and universities need to be places where a plurality of views is not only tolerated but encouraged. Education needs to be about free inquiry and thought. Courses need to be taught in context and in a fair, accurate and balanced way. All Australian university students should have the right to study and inquire in an open and free academic environment.
This inquiry provided the opportunity for matters that impinge on this freedom to be highlighted, and the committee uncovered a number of matters of particular concern-firstly, the hostility of the university sector to examination. Several academic witnesses as well as Universities Australia gave evidence to the effect that the very existence of the Senate inquiry was itself a threat to academic freedom and would impinge on that freedom and that academics would exercise self-censorship in the face of a Senate inquiry. I for one do not believe that Australia’s academics are anything other than robust and I do not believe that they would be cowered by a Senate inquiry. It is indeed a bizarre proposition, I think, that universities should be entitled to free inquiry but not the parliament itself. Given taxpayers spend some $6.7 billion per annum on the university sector, I think it is not unreasonable or inappropriate that the parliament ask a few questions of the university sector from time to time.
Another area of concern was the denial by many academics that bias exists. Clearly it does and probably has since the establishment of the university at Fez in Morocco in the year 859. The questions which should be asked are: is the bias that exists systemic or is it isolated, and what avenues of appeal exist? I for one believe that instances of bias of a deliberate and specific nature by academics are uncommon, but in such cases I am of the view that the avenues of appeal need to be better publicised and more transparent.
True bias, I think, exists in the nature of the curriculum in many faculties. It ensures a monoculture-what James Cook University academic Merv Bendle calls an ‘intellectual monoculture’. Dr Bendle told the inquiry-and Miranda Devine notes this today in a piece in the Sydney Morning Herald-of his view that:
In another age this could be a fascist far Right intellectual monoculture and it would do just as much damage to our society as a left-wing or far Left intellectual monoculture. It is not so much the politics of the thing; it is the fact that it is an intellectual monoculture, that it is one voice being heard over and over again unrelentingly.
We do not want to have at campuses around Australia an environment where students feel the need to be strategic and to tailor their work to the prevailing curriculum taste. We need to move from a situation where academic freedom is seen as just that-freedom for the academic faculty. We need to shift to a broader concept that involves the academic freedom of students as well.
The opposition make a number of recommendations in this report which seek to underpin and reinforce the academic freedom of faculty and students, to provide avenues for redress for those rare specific cases of individual academic bias, and also to encourage institutions to ensure a variety in curriculum which I think is lacking at the moment.