Report on the State of Academic Freedom in New Zealand Universities
The Free Speech Union's report, conducted in partnership with Curia Research, on academic freedom in New Zealand's tertiary education sector represents the second year of robustly conducted quantitative research in New Zealand.
This work scrutinises the freedom that academics perceive within their institutions, evaluating the liberty to advance knowledge, contribute to public discourse, and voice controversial opinions, as delineated by the Education Act 1989 and the Education and Training Act 2020.
Understanding whether academics are free to pursue such a course, in accordance with the freedom enshrined into law is not frivolous or academic pontificating.
It is important because free and open debate around issues we do not agree on is how societies move constructively forward. Indeed, this is the process of science.
This research is important because we want to know the extent to which those charged with being the critic and conscience of society and fulfilling that important responsibility feel free to do so.
It is important because free and open debate in this manner is what helps us come together. Stifling debate, necessarily aimed at preventing us coming together, has the paradoxical failure of setting us apart, creating echo chambers, virtue signalling, bullying and a cancel culture. None of us should agree, whatever our opinions, that these are good things.
The study uncovered worrying insights; many academics find themselves inhibited and their capacity for open debate stifled, an ominous development given the universities' role as a 'critic and conscience' of society.
The findings indicate that while most academics feel somewhat free in selecting their research topics, only a slim majority feel comfortable raising differing perspectives with colleagues. More worryingly, less than half feel free to express controversial or unpopular views. Male, of European descent, with centrist and right leaning views were the least likely to feel freedom to speak.
The onus is on us as a society, and more specifically on tertiary education institutions, the Tertiary Education Commission, the Minister of Tertiary Education, and the Vice-Chancellors, to protect academic freedom and foster a climate of intellectual fearlessness.
In addition, the responsibility lies with us as academics to exercise this responsibility with care but freedom. The privilege of being able to contribute to society is something academics need to embrace and get on with robustly.
Yes, the response rate and sample size are limited in this work, but given the magnitude of the effects reported here, even a more conservative estimate would indicate a large issue which we need to confront.
I hope this report and the work of the Free Speech Union can catalyse a crucial conversation about academic freedom in New Zealand, illuminating the urgency of addressing this issue.
Professor Grant Schofield