Academic capitalism has grown in universities worldwide since the 1980s. Its critics have regularly pointed out the academic freedom risks associated with commercialising scholarly endeavour. These have only increased as the logic of profit dominated higher education.
Recently, the University of New South Wales appeared to allow its commercial interests – the importance of international fees paid by students from China – to trump its commitment to academic freedom when it deleted a tweet by Elaine Pearson about human rights in Hong Kong.
University of Queensland student Drew Pavlou recently lost an appeal against his suspension. He claimed his suspension was punishment for speaking out about Chinese funders influencing course content.
Aligning commercial interests to academic work was always fraught, but government funding too came with risks. In fact, mid-20th-century vice-chancellors were at first reluctant to accept Commonwealth funding for fear government interference would jeopardise academic freedom. Between the Murray review of the 1950s and the Dawkins reforms of the 1980s, a “buffer body”, the Australian Universities Commission (later the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission, when colleges of advanced education were included), sought to keep the government’s political interests at arm’s length from university funding.
The buffer has long gone. As the university commercialised, academic freedom has become more precarious.
From this point of view, the Walker appointment to monitor university compliance with free speech seems perilous. Since there was no free speech crisis, the government’s attentiveness to free speech on Australian campuses is little more than a dog-whistle to particular political interests.