Pages tagged "University"

  • Free speech – a student's perspective

    When recently attending the Free Speech Unions event at the University of Otago, I was struck by two thoughts: who was there, and who wasnt. 

    I have already come to realise I traverse two increasingly separate worlds.  As a student, in the shadow of the ivory tower of academia, intersectionality, anti-racism, post-colonialism, and the destruction of anything old, white, and male reign supreme. Yet, among my wider family - and to many others in this country - these ideas butt up against the values which have enabled us to build this liberal democratic society. As an example, in the views of the latter group, co-governance is perceived as an unjustified exception to the principle of equal universal suffrage, which many have fought and died for. Whereas, in uni-land, it is seen as the opposite: a necessity to fix past injustice. 

    In between these two worlds, day-by-day, tension is growing as they diverge further apart. We are becoming a polarised country. It seems clear to me, that the only way to resolve these tensions within society is dialogue. Robust, critical, unrestricted, and open dialogue - and the fostering of a spirit of curiosity to understand the others world view. 

    Consequently, I find the failure of anyone on the political Left to turn up to the event hosted by the Free Speech Union at Otago University, which sought to both protect and define the limits of freedom of speech, highly disappointing.

    If freedom of speech means anything, it means giving others the right to say things you do not want to hear, even if these things appear upsetting or abhorrent. Moreover, up until very recent times the university has, as an institution, held itself out to be the arena in which all and any ideas can be contested - believing that it is only in this contest, no matter how difficult or controversial it may be, that truth can be found.

    However, it now seems that many (perhaps most) within the university system refuse to contribute to this contest. Moreover, for the most controversial topics, they even refuse to allow it to occur at all. Then, when those in the other world get louder and more vexatious towards them in reply, they are outraged. They pursue an ideology that seems to censor anyone who rejects their world view. It is ideological hubris in the extreme.

    All that said, I equally do not doubt that some people on the political Right simply wanted to use the event as a platform to hurl abuse. Their ad hominem attacks did not focus on the contest of ideas; they played the person, not the ball, and through this stifled genuine debate. I find it difficult to reconcile what I heard at points within the event with what I believe is freedom of speechs requisite duty; the duty to allow others to speak – and the duty to then listen. 

    Whilst, to his credit, Peter Williams did guide the panel (of Michael Woodhouse MP, James McDowall MP, and Dunedin Mayoral candidate Lee Vandervis) in fielding difficult questions from the crowd despite these outbursts, it was clear this was not the productive debate it could have been. 

    From the Left, there lacked the courage to front up and listen to those who think differently the courage to present their views on freedom of speech (and its limits) reasonably and rationally despite what they might have construed (probably correctly) as a hostile crowd. And from the Right the wisdom to control their emotions – to focus on reason – and give the debate the creditability it deserved. 

    Thus, instead of leaving with a concept of freedom of speech befitting of both worlds, I was left in a relative quagmire. I agreed with what was said by the panel for the most part – but it was unchallenged – and I am the poorer from it. Moreover, the outbursts unfortuantely justified the Left’s refusal to attend. The steady march of polarisation within our country carries on. 

    Free speech has been the foundation on which liberal democracy has been built. In all its imperfectection, I believe it remains demonstrably the best option available. The work of the Free Speech Union to protect the crucial liberty of speech, from both the Left and the Right is thus crucial.  Yet free speech is in itself not the full solution. It takes each of us to show up and respect the other side for the peace and stability we enjoy in our country to be maintained.


     *Tomas O’Brien is a supporter of the Free Speech Union and law student at Otago University 

  • Research Reveals High Proportion Of Kiwi Academics Feel Unfree To Exercise Academic Freedom

    8 April 2022


    The Free Speech Union has released the results of the first Annual Survey on Academic Freedom, which paints a stark picture of the state of academic freedom in New Zealand. The research reveals that a significant minority (almost half) of the academics feel less free than free with respect to numerous core aspects of academic freedom surveyed. Part of the results are:

    • 45% of respondents felt more constrained than free to question and test received wisdom.
    • 47% of respondents felt more constrained than free to raise differing perspectives and argue against the consensus.
    • 47% of respondents felt more constrained than free to raise differing perspectives or to debate or discuss issues to do with gender or sex.
    • 50% of respondents felt more constrained than free to debate or discuss issues surrounding the Treaty, with almost one-third responding 0-2.5 (very unfree).

    “Universities are supposed to facilitate an environment in which academic staff can express ideas without fear of retribution or persecution– where they can question and test received wisdom and state controversial or unpopular ideas. These results confirm what many academics have been privately expressing to us – they simply don’t feel free to venture honestly-held views on contentious issues," says spokesperson for the Union, Jonathan Ayling.

    “That almost half of the academics feel less free than free in most areas surveyed is a worrying indictment on the state of the tertiary sector, and raises questions about whether our universities are doing enough to honour their statutory obligations to preserve and enhance the academic freedom of their staff as required in the Education and Training Act 2020.

    “Interestingly, the level of seniority did not necessarily translate into academics feeling they have greater academic freedom, with lecturers claiming to feel more free than professors. It is also clear that different academics perceive their level of academic freedom as dramatically different from their peers. For example, in terms of freedom to debate or discuss Treaty issues, 30% said it was very low (less than 2.5) and 36% said it was very high. It is unknown if this correlates to what their actual views on Treaty issues might be.

    “Universities are meant to be places where the marketplace of persuasion and ideas creates and advances knowledge, pushing us beyond the status quo. Without the freedom to think and to share ideas freely without fear of reprisals, knowledge cannot develop and society can’t progress. Intellectual inquiry is unable to lead us into new discoveries and ways of thinking when a sizeable minority of academics at our universities feel more constrained than free in most areas.

    "If academics and the tertiary educators of our nation feel more constrained than free on a majority of the questions raised, it is likely that the case is even more pronounced for students at universities across the country. The Free Speech Union will be releasing a subsequent survey shortly examining the perception of free speech by university students, also. Universities are failing to foster diverse perspectives, and this will have major implications in the options which we are aware of as we address complex and difficult questions going forward.

    "The Free Speech Union commissioned Curia Market Research to survey New Zealand academics on their perceptions of academic freedom. New Zealand academics were asked to express how free they felt in respect of eight facets of academic freedom, on a 0 to 10 scale where 0 is totally unfree and 10 is totally free. 1,266 respondents agreed to participate."


  • Adieu Liberal Education: Bienvenue Post-College Daycare

    Academic freedom is defined in s161 of the Education Act as “the freedom of academic staff and students, within the law, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions”. Without an unwavering commitment to this principle, universities are unable to perform their role as the ‘critic and conscience’ of society, which the Act also requires of them. But in recent years we have seen attempts by university administrators to limit this cardinal rule in response to the purported need to protect students from ideas that risk causing ‘harm’; an undefined, ambiguous notion that may often be reduced to fear of having one’s worldview challenged. 

    This limitation on academic freedom is informed by the notion that universities should be a ‘safe space’ for students, particularly those hailing from marginalised communities. But trying to create a safe space for feelings inevitably costs the ability of universities to play host to a safe space for ideas. 

    Massey University's academic freedom policy, for example, revised after the Brash affair in 2018, pays lip service to the sanctity of academic freedom and freedom of speech. Yet it claims that these freedoms might properly be restricted by the University in order to “safeguard the safety, health and welfare of its students”. Previously, attempts to suppress the exercise of fundamental freedoms required more than vague pronouncements that a person is made unsafe, or has their well-being threatened, by the fact that somebody is discussing ideas they don’t like (perish the thought). 

    As public institutions, universities have an obligation to uphold freedom of expression with the usual justified limits imposed by s5 of the Bill of Rights Act. Indeed, the only constraint envisioned by the legislation is that academic freedom must be exercised within the ‘bounds of the law’. But according to Massey’s proctor Giselle Byrnes, Massey’s ‘policy supports and validates academic freedom while emphasising that with this freedom comes the responsibility to ensure that others are neither harmed nor hurt in the exercise of this privilege.” 

    This is not some difficult balancing act. It is an irreconcilable contradiction​ ​​​— either academic freedom is a right to be exercised within the bounds of the law, or it is a privilege to be exercised with regard to the feelings of others ​​​​— it cannot be both. And if it is the latter, it is difficult to see how our public institutions of higher learning can function if anyone who may find the confrontation of a debate stressful holds a veto power over them taking place.

    It is a fact of life that asking questions runs the serious risk of offending others, and it is absolutely advisable that academics exercise their freedoms in accordance with the highest standards of not only ethics and professionalism, but simply manners and decency. But, to cite Professor Clark Kerr of the University of California, “The purpose of the university is to make students safe for ideas – not ideas safe for students”. While universities must be cognisant of their pastoral duties, they must also remain places where the space to think freely, to state controversial ideas, and to challenge orthodoxies is vigorously protected. 

    What might be deduced from Massey’s policy specifically, and the troubling culture embraced in each of our universities generally, is that pastoral care has taken over from the academic and discursive role of universities. To place the potential for hurt feelings over academic freedom flies in the face of the whole purpose of a university; not for fragile minds to be coddled, but for robust thinking to be tested. In light of that, are universities now more akin to young-adult daycare centres than training institutions for tomorrow’s innovators and leaders? For surely it is only children who would need such patronising ‘protection’. 

  • Free Speech Union Welcomes Legislation To Defend Freedom Of Expression On University Campuses

    21 October 2021


    The Free Speech Union welcomes the introduction of the Education (Freedom of Expression) Amendment Bill drawn from the ballot this afternoon in the name of Dr. James McDowall. This Bill will strengthen free speech on university campus, and ensures tertiary education providers defend academic freedoms, says Free Speech Union spokesperson, Jonathan Ayling.

    “Freedom of expression and the rights to opinion and conscience face extreme opposition in parts of our society, and this is seen most clearly on our university campuses. Tertiary providers are tasked with being the critic and conscience of the nation. Yet from cancelled lectures to safe-zones and trigger warnings, universities continue to indulge in controlling what view points students are exposed to, often under the cover of 'Health and Safety'. This is contrary to the role of these institutions, and threatens the liberal values of tolerance and diversity fostered by free speech.

    "This Bill is an important step to ensure that educational providers foster the ability of students to think critically by being exposed to a wide range of perspectives. Universities are tasked and funded by the public to ensure no question is off the table, and no perspective is rejected outright.

    "The best defence we have against attacks on free speech is a strong culture which celebrates and values open debate and tolerance. Yet, it has become clear that in the absence of such a culture in many universities, a stronger legal mandate is also needed.

    "We call on each Party in Parliament to support this Bill, to ensure that our institutions of higher learning remain providers of liberal education which includes diverse perspectives and speech, enabled by freedom of expression." 

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