Free speech should be defended, Universities Australia chair John Dewar says

Catie McLeodNCA NewsWire
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Camera IconNot Supplied Credit: News Corp Australia

Australia should defend its universities to remain places which encourage free speech and debate, the chair of the peak tertiary education sector body has said.

Universities Australia chairman John Dewar said he had heard from the sector some academics had experienced feeling “constrained” on what they could say.

“There can be a tendency for orthodoxies to cluster around certain views in certain disciplines,” the La Trobe University Vice-Chancellor told the National Press Club on Wednesday.

“But my observation is that universities are places of robust discussion and debate and that we should defend that.”

Professor Dewar was responding to a question from a higher education reporter who asked about “insidious stuff” he claimed was hampering free speech on campuses.

La Trobe University Vice-Chancellor John Dewar was asked about free speech at universities at the National Press Club on Wednesday. Supplied
Camera IconLa Trobe University Vice-Chancellor John Dewar was asked about free speech at universities at the National Press Club on Wednesday. Supplied Credit: Supplied

The journalist asked about “self-censorship” by academics concerned about “copping a social media pile-on” if they said something unpopular on certain issues.

Professor Dewar said it was a “complex question”.

“But I think universities remain places where robust debate (and) exchange of views is still active and tolerated. And encouraged, indeed,” he said.

LABOR PRESSER
Camera IconEducation Minister Jason Clare will address the university sector on Wednesday evening. NewsWire / Monique Harmer Credit: News Corp Australia

The debate over free speech on campuses boiled over a few years ago after a slew of incidents, including a violent protest against author Bettina Arndt and her “Fake Rape Campus Tour” at Sydney University in 2018.

Then-education minister Dan Tehan subsequently appointed former chief justice Robert French to undertake his 2019 “Review of Freedom of Speech in Australian Higher Education Providers”.

The Morrison government then pushed for Australia’s 42 universities to enact policies which would protect free speech and academic freedoms, in line with a model code proposed by Mr French in his review.

The Albanese government is yet to detail whether it has an official position on free speech at universities.

Education Minister Jason Clare’s office has been contacted for comment.

Mr Clare is due to give a speech at the university sector’s annual conference on Wednesday evening.

Originally published as Free speech should be defended, Universities Australia chair John Dewar says

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