Class Act: An erosion of our intellectual freedom

There has been considerable interest recently around the issues of whistle-blowing and the rights (and responsibilities) of citizens to expose what they consider illegal acts and the role of the government in making sure that in doing so they are not victimised.

The case of the ongoing prosecution in the Timor-Leste spying scandal of Witness K and his lawyer is a prime example of the ways in which neoliberal ideas around the sanctity of the state are beginning to over-ride our understanding of intellectual freedom and fundamental moral principles. 

We see similar efforts played out in other arenas. Back in May this year, staff at the University of Melbourne went on strike protesting at the way in which management were attempting, in enterprise bargaining, to remove current academic and intellectual freedom protections from the Enterprise Agreement.

The idea of academic freedom arose from the original perception of universities as places where controversial ideas could be debated, where these debates would serve as a check-and-balance mechanism for society itself.

Academics were expected to pursue knowledge in their areas of interest and those areas were not to be limited so that they were able to research, analyse and speak publically about these topics. This freedom does have boundaries: vilification, harassment, defamation and research misconduct (such as falsifying research results) are not acceptable.

Academic voice and academic freedom is increasingly constrained.

These rights are recognised internationally and articulated by UNESCO.

Around Australia there are growing challenges to the notion of academic freedom. Last year there were a range of news reports suggesting universities were attempting to curb academics from speaking about issues that might jeopardise the Chinese student market.

The current government research impact process is an attempt to limit research to specific areas defined by government as immediately important and runs the risk of preventing the pure (rather than applied) research that underpins much of our scientific innovation.

Increasingly, faculties and schools are limiting the choices of academics in relation to what they can research; the allocation of seeding grants needed to develop large projects and undertake pilot work is often limited to those working in pre-identified (and pre-approved) priority areas.

Research in areas that are not identified as priority (by the organisation, by the government) does not have the same chance of getting funded, of leading to promotion or of being recognised through the provision of other types of organisational support. 

Adding to this is the high casualisation rate: at UNE a recent survey identified that over 57 per cent of staff are in insecure employment. For those in insecure academic positions undertaking research that might be perceived as not meeting management guidelines (if there is time to do any research at all given that there is no salary associated with research for casuals) is not a good career-building move.

Academic voice and academic freedom is increasingly constrained. This is something about which we should be concerned.

The ability to critique, the ability to publically share issues, the ability to speak our minds is a fundamental principle of democracy.

As Sheldon Wolin wrote last year, we are fast becoming subject to inverted totalitarianism where there is “outward fealty to the façade of electoral politics… freedom of the press… but it has effectively seized all of the mechanisms of power to render the citizen impotent”.

Read more Class Act: