Release type: Transcript


Minister for Education Dan Tehan and Professor (Emeritus) Sally Walker AM press conference


The Hon Dan Tehan MP
Minister for Education

SUBJECTS: The Review of the Adoption of the Model Code on Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom

Dan Tehan: Morning everyone, and thanks for joining us. Nearly two years ago, I asked Robert French, the former Chief Justice of the High Court, to undertake a review of freedom of speech and academic inquiry at Australia’s universities. Robert French did an outstanding job and recommended that universities should adopt a code on freedom of speech and academic inquiry. And, earlier this year, every university committed to adopt the French Model Code, and said that they would have them fully implemented by the end of this year. Now, as part of that process, I asked Professor Sally Walker to give me an update on how all universities were going in implementing or adopting the French Model Code. Now, Professor Walker has done an outstanding piece of work which we are releasing today. It shows that some universities have fully adopted the Code, and we have some that are truly exemplars in how they’ve gone about this process. It shows that other universities, though, have still more work to do, and I’m confident, with the right approach, that they will be able to finalise that work by the end of the year. And, there are some universities who really will need to lift their game, and I’m hoping that this will be a bit of a wakeup call for them and that they will get serious about this, because it’s an issue which the Government is very serious about and it’s an issue which the Australian people hold dear to their hearts, as well. So, without further ado, I’ll ask Professor Walker to, basically, give you the background to the piece of work that she has undertaken, to go through the recommendations and the suggestions that she’s making to the Government, and also to highlight some of the best practices that she’s found, but, also, some of the areas where she thinks universities need to do more. Professor Walker, over to you, and I just thank you again for this outstanding piece of work that you’ve undertaken.

Sally Walker: Thank you, Minister. And, as the Minister has said, the French Review reported in March 2019, and its recommendation was for a Model Code for the protection of freedom of speech and academic freedom, and universities agreed that they would adopt this Model Code, adapt it or ensure that the principles of the Model Code were reflected in their policies. The task the Minister asked me to undertake was to validate the alignment of university’s policies with the Model Code. The analysis did not require duplication of the Model Code. I was not looking for an exact replica of the Model Code. My work centred on whether each university’s policies aligned with four central concepts of the Model Code. I really want to emphasise the fact that this was a review of universities policies. If you talk to the Vice-Chancellors and other senior leaders in universities, I’m sure you will find that they will all say that their university is committed to academic freedom and freedom of speech. But, this review was not about broad statements of commitment. It was about each university’s policies, and whether they are consistent with the Model Code. And, policies are important for at least three reasons. First of all, they provide comfort to academic staff and students who know that their academic freedom and freedom of speech is protected by this policy. It’s also important for other members of staff in the university who have to apply a raft of other policies or make decisions that could impact on academic freedom and freedom of speech of others. So, they are alert to the fact that the university has a policy committing them to upholding academic freedom and freedom of speech. Universities are large organisations with numerous employees at all levels of the university, some of whom could have an impact on academic freedom and freedom of speech. And, thirdly, having a policy is important for public confidence. Can the public be confident that these publicly funded institutions are committed to academic freedom and freedom of speech? So, against that background, I looked at the policies that universities provided to me, and determined whether they were consistent with the Model Code. I should just say that the Model Code is a fabulous piece of work. It’s clear, it’s balanced, it respects the autonomy of universities, universities are not limited unnecessarily by the Model Code. And, those universities that have adopted it, still have room to make the Model Code, to make their policy, their own. It is not an overly restrictive document. So, at this point, overall, the level of alignment with the Model Code is mixed. Of the 33 universities that have completed their work to implement the Model Code, nine have policies that are fully aligned with the Model Code. Of the eight universities that have not yet completed their work to implement the Model Code, two provided draft policies that, if implemented, would be fully aligned. Now, there are some exemplars of good policies in, amongst the universities. I’m very impressed with the policy of the University of Sydney, which has been developed by an expert group within the university, that has gone through every aspect of the Model Code and made determination whether it will adopt it or not. And, La Trobe University, which has adopted the Model Code as its own. But, at the same time, it has also gone through its entire policy suite – and for anybody who’s ever worked in a university, I can tell you that’s a large enterprise to undertake – and, it’s reviewed all of its policies to ensure that they’re consistent with the Model Code. So, they’re two universities, the University of Sydney, La Trobe University, who are exemplars of good practice. I have made some suggestions to universities that have not fully aligned with the Model Code. One suggestion is – and I think this is probably the most important suggestion that I can make to universities – is to have one document, one policy, rather than dotting aspects in a piecemeal fashion throughout a number of different policies. Having one policy gives greater confidence to people, than having to search through a range of policies to find whether they’re protected by academic freedom or freedom of speech. I have also recommended to the Government that university governing bodies – I’ll sometimes call those councils, even though they have different names – but the university governing bodies should have a heightened role in relation to academic freedom and freedom of speech, and I have suggested that the Government require universities to include in their annual report an attestation statement, developed by the governing body, setting out whether the university has a policy or policies that are consistent with the Model Code, and drawing attention to other matters in relation to academic freedom and freedom of speech. And, the Minister has asked the University Chancellors Committee to come up with a list of requirements for publication in annual reports, so that the sector can own that attestation statement. I’m sorry that’s such a long introduction. I’m very happy to take any questions that you might have against that background.

Tehan: Thanks Professor Walker.

Journalist: Minister, this report shows that [inaudible] very slowly [inaudible], especially when it comes to fully embracing it. If universities do not fully commit to this Code by the end of the year, will you look at mandatory?

Tehan: So, what we’ve been through is a process with Professor Walker, to make sure that we’ve really shone a light on where universities are at. Now, the commitment from the universities was that they would adopt the Model Code by the end of the year, and my hope is that, now Professor Walker has undertaken this work, that is what we’ll see. Professor Walker has also recommended – and I think it is an excellent recommendation – that we embolden councillors, or chancellors, to make sure that their university is implementing the Code. So, we’re also going to put that process in place. The Government has, obviously, just received the report, but I’m of a mind, and will be recommending to my Cabinet colleagues, that we accept all the recommendations and suggestions that have been made by Professor Walker. So, our hope is that universities will own this. They want to own it. They will put the policies in place. Now, we have other steps which we might take and might consider if that doesn’t happen. But, at this stage, what we’ve done is really shown them the way, as to how they can do this. There is, there are now exemplars that we can point to and say, ‘This is the model that you should be seeking to adopt.’ So, we want to make, we want universities to own this themselves, and the work that Professor Walker has done enables them to do that. So, let’s wait and see. Let’s give them the go, give them a go. But, we also will reserve the right to take extra action if we need to.

Journalist: How long will they get a go, though? Because, you know, it has been, as Professor Walker, you know, notes, it has been, and you note, yourself, Minister, it’s been nearly two years since this Code’s been in place, and a lot of them seem to be dragging their feet. How much longer are you willing to wait, because you do, you do seem to be very much wanting consensus on this?

Tehan: Look, it’s the, what we want is universities to understand that they’re given autonomy for a reason. But, we also want them to understand, with that, comes responsibility, especially when it comes to freedom of speech and academic inquiry, they hold real responsibility to uphold those two key tenants of any university. Now, we always said that they had until the end of the year to implement. And, we’ve seen, just in the last couple of weeks, university senates adopting the Code. So, we want to give them until the end of the year, and my hope is, by the time we get to the end of the year, we will have a report card which is all As.

Journalist: Professor, one of the universities that you found did not align with, their policies did not align with the Code, UNSW, last night said that, I guess, insinuated, they were a bit perplexed as to why they didn’t align. They’ve argued that their policies almost go above and beyond what the Code lays out, in that they allow a greater range of freedom of speech and academic on their campuses, whereas the Model Code is more circumscribed. Is that your reading of where their policies are at?

Walker: Well, I’d come back to the fact that we, I was assessing original policies, not ideas or concepts or statements made by Vice-Chancellors or other senior leaders of universities. I analysed the University of New South Wales’ policies, and those policies are not fully aligned with the Model Code. I have produced notes for universities, which the university will have access to, and that might assist them in ensuring that they develop policy which is consistent with the Model Code. One of the problems that I did find at some universities was that they had aspects of academic freedom and freedom of speech dotted around in a piecemeal fashion in their policy documents, rather than having one policy which set out their approach to academic freedom and freedom of speech. And, I think that’s important, as I said, for staff who benefit, and also for staff who have to apply policies, to know what is actually the university’s requirements in relation to academic freedom and freedom of speech. So, this was not about broad statements of commitment. This was about university policies.

Journalist: And, sorry, are you saying, in that respect, UNSW’ policies weren’t as rigorous or as fulsome as what the Code set out?

Walker: They were not aligned with the Model Code, that’s correct. They didn’t conform with the Model Code.

Journalist: But, aligned, as in, they fell short, whereas they’re arguing that they go, like, allow greater range of freedom of speech?

Walker: The important thing is to have a written policy, if I could emphasise that, perhaps that will explain why I do not think that the University of New South Wales has a written policy which is aligned with the Model Code.

Journalist: Minister, would you ever consider tying Higher Education Support Act funding to universities, for example, who will not put, they do not put out the annual statement, as you’re going to tell your, advise your Cabinet colleagues, they should have? And, what, I just, I guess, look, also, Professor Walker, do you think that funding should be tied in any way to making sure that there’s freedom of speech at universities?

Tehan: I’ll leave it up to Professor Walker to comment first.

Walker: That wasn’t part of my terms of reference. Naturally, I do have a view about it. But, I don’t want to say what it is in a way that may detract from the work that I’ve done, so I’m going to defer back to you, Minister.

Tehan: Well, look, the Government has a range of options available to it. It can legislate, it could legislate and then tie funding, but that’s not where we need to go. And, we shouldn’t have to go there. This should be something which the universities, of themselves, just adopt and see as key tenants of what they do, and that is, that is my hope. We’ve, we’re along a process, here. We had Robert French do his outstanding work. We’ve now had Professor Walker do her outstanding work. Very much they’ve been shown and guided in the way that we want them to go on this, and now it’s up to them. But, not only up to the universities themselves, but up to the, to the governing councils, up to the chancellors. We’re giving them a key role now, and we want them to seize that role, and we’re established a committee. And, I’ve already spoken to the head of the University Chancellors Stephen Gerlach, and he has set up a panel which is going to put templates in place. Now, on that panel is John Brumby, a former Premier of Victoria, from La Trobe University, they’re an exemplar. Julie Bishop from the ANU, former Foreign Minister, lawyer, and well, well addressed, and knows Government very well, so she’ll be on that panel. Belinda Hutchinson from the University of Sydney, another exemplar, she will be on it. Peter Shergold from Western Sydney University, someone who knows and understands Government very well. And, then, Paul Jeans from the University of Newcastle. So, what we’re doing now is we’re saying to those chancellors and their governing councils, we want you to take up the mantle and really show the way. And, as part of the attestations that they’ve got to put in place and as part of their annual report, that will also give TEQSA the ability to look at what universities are doing in this regard. So, ultimately, there are other steps we might have to take, but I don’t want to go there, because we want the universities themselves to lead on this.

Journalist: Slightly less tricky one for Professor Walker. You actually outlined quite a few practical steps about how freedom of speech can be promoted in universities – induction classes for new students, making it a key part of staff training, staff meetings. Is there anything else that you think universities could do? You’re also very, make very strong statements that Vice-Chancellors have to lead on freedom of speech. What more can Vice-Chancellors do, in a practical way, as well as having a written policy on [inaudible] to promote freedom of speech? And, Minister, would you consider, you know, making it, part of any legal requirement, saying, you must have induction classes and things like that on freedom of speech?

Walker: Thank you very much, Minister. I think that the best way that a university can show its commitment to academic freedom and freedom of speech is to respond appropriately when under pressure. And, I think, every Vice-Chancellor, at some time during their time in office, is faced with either a public furore about something that’s published, something that a member of academic staff has said, or a private approach from somebody who says, can you tell that member of staff to stop saying things of that nature. And, it’s how a Vice-Chancellor reacts and responds in those circumstances. In the case of a private approach, I found that explaining what is meant by academic freedom and why it matters is very important, because people usually understand the reasons for it when you explain it to them, and why it’s not appropriate to stop a member of staff from saying something or to ask them to modify what they’re saying. In the case of Vice-Chancellors’ response in the face of a furore, we’re all human beings, and sometimes that can be quite hostile commentary. I think every Vice-Chancellor faces that at least once in the time that they’re in office. But, coming out strongly in support of academic freedom and freedom of speech has a powerful impact on the university. And, I think that it’s very important that Vice-Chancellors are able to refer to a policy and say, this is what we have in place, and these are the reasons for it. That gives confidence to members of the public. A quick response from a Vice-Chancellor in that way can make a powerful difference to the culture and the institution. So, I have set out some suggestions in relation to induction programs for staff, and so on. And, I’ve talked about educating students, not just telling them that they’ve got academic freedom and freedom of speech, but, actually, educating them about academic freedom and freedom of speech. But, really, I think the most powerful action is action taken in the face of a media storm.

Tehan: And, one of the reasons that I asked Professor Walker to do this is because when she had her finger put to the fire, and it was when the Howard Government was in office, she was prepared to stand up to Australia’s longest serving Foreign Minister, and make sure that academic freedom and freedom of speech was upheld at her university. And, it’s that type of fearlessness as to why I asked her to do this review, and she has done it, as I have expected – she has been blunt, she’s been frank. She’s got some very good suggestions here for the university sector, which I hope will be adopted. And, as to induction courses there, that’s the sort of thing, now, which I think every chancellor should be looking at talking to their Vice-Chancellors and really putting in place, because we cannot underestimate the importance of freedom of speech and academic inquiry in today’s world. It is absolutely vital to our democracy. Universities have the real opportunity to lead the way, and, I hope, following the great work that Robert French has done, and now Sally has done, that they will be able to do that. We’ll leave it there. Thanks everyone.