A fearful university in Adelaide abandons academic freedom in attempts to better understand China

Oct 4, 2021
university of adelaide
University of Adelaide. (Image: Flickr/bram_souffreau)

It wasn’t foreign interference and influence legislation that got in the way of a recent university event, but the universities themselves, fearful of standing up for academic freedom.

Running a symposium on improving mutual understanding between China and Australia, asking what can we learn from each other proved harder than expected. It ran afoul less of the federal foreign interference and influence legislation than a university fearful of standing up for academic freedom.

In his excellent book China Panic, David Brophy devotes a chapter to the impact of the new cold war with China on Australian universities.

The foreign interference taskforce set up in August 2019 brought peak university bodies into direct collaboration with Home Affairs, ASIO and others. The 2020 Foreign Relations Bill (which has since been enacted) gave the government power of veto on all international collaborations, including those agreed between universities. It is now a legal requirement to register any such agreements, the key test being whether the collaborating university was an “autonomous institution” or not.

Everyone knows this is aimed at China. I have an agreement with the Catholic University of Milan, which was waved through, though I doubt there was any investigation of its close relations with the Vatican.

Brophy concludes: “For all the talk of academic freedom and free speech, today’s policy responses to ‘foreign interference’ effectively increase outside intervention into the operations of universities.”

Over two afternoons last week, two colleagues (University of Adelaide) and I (University of South Australia) organised a symposium, “Different Histories, Shared Futures”, which tried to create a space for dialogue between Australia and China.

It was not uniquely focused on international relations, though of course this was a recurrent theme, but rather on the capacities of each country or “system” to face the challenges of the future. Could we learn anything from each other?

Having arranged the speakers and timetable, we then got onto setting up the online infrastructure, with the University of Adelaide, where the hybrid live/ webcast event was to be hosted. It was at that point, the same day as the AUKUS deal was announced, that the trouble started.

“How am I to fill in this box?” my colleague asked me, sending me the compliance form required by the government. I replied there was no need, as we were not working with any foreign entity. This brief exchange alerted me to a range of other things going on.

I replied both to the school head and the chief security officer (a professor) that this event was not covered by the Act and asked why they were being made to fill out the form. I was told this was simply “due process”, when in fact a simple yes or no question could have shown it was not required.

We were then asked, “Why have you not named Palgrave Macmillan (Singapore or UK) as a foreign organisation involved with the engagement?” This referred to a sponsorship deal with the publisher which, in the end, did not come off. So, it now seems that any conference sponsored by a non-Australian publisher is required to fill in the foreign interference form.

I do not know if such sponsorship by a publisher (and in the social sciences, Palgrave Macmillan is one of the big three or four) is covered by the Act. Perhaps, as with Kevin Rudd or Tony Abbott’s need to register their own “foreign interests”, it is an unfortunate by-product of the kind of poorly drafted legislation which has become a hallmark of this government. However, other demands were clearly not legally required.

My colleagues were asked to submit abstracts of the papers in advance. Then the university’s legal department demanded we insert a disclaimer before each speaker to the effect that these were the opinions of the individual speakers not the views of the universities, not could these universities guarantee the “accuracy or reliability of the information presented”.

In my long career in academia, I have never seen such as disclaimer inserted into a conference brochure — and I’ve spoken in Russia and China.

I asked, twice, if this disclaimer would henceforth be demanded of all external speakers, whatever the topic. No answer was given, for of course the answer would be no. There is no legal need for such a disclaimer, as academics are guaranteed freedom to speak within their field of expertise and general propriety. As a co-convenor from the University of South Australia they insisted that I too must sign up to that disclaimer. I refused and stood down as co-convenor.

The security officer said that “foreign interference” also meant on campus, suggesting that we were naïve to think this would not take place, and that “nefarious actors” might seek to interject.

They demanded we have security, and that I pay half. There was no evidence of any security threat.

Brophy’s chapter again takes us through many examples of on-campus discussions which went off peacefully. These were about Hong Kong and Xinjiang, involving heated but respectful debates between “mainland” and other Chinese students.

Our event was a series of papers in the usual academic style — big words, hand waiving, going over time, etc — not an open public meeting. In the end I was informed, via a senior manager at my own university, that the University of Adelaide had unilaterally moved it all online.

Free speech on campus, in areas deemed sensitive by university managers, is under serious threat.

My Chinese colleagues felt the pressure in ways that I, as an Anglo-Australian, did not. The Chinese community in general is running scared, keeping a low profile, fearing accusations of being fifth columnists.

Only Chinese people with anti-PRC views are now acceptable in the media. As Guy Rundle has written in Crikey over the past week, with the exception of this outlet, the mainstream media has been in lockstep with the government and the military-intelligence community on this. The “left” feels it best to keep quiet. And academia?

After the sentence on academic freedom Brophy writes: “A single-minded vigilance towards China is going hand in hand with the increasing integration of universities with Western military institutions.”

The talk in the Campus Morning Mail after the AUKUS deal, was how the South Australian universities would fair. Flinders — upbeat; UniSA — taken aback; Adelaide— no comment.

Why universities were up to their neck in defence contracts in the first place was never asked. I’ve no idea what defence contracts are at stake amongst the three universities. What is clear at the University of Adelaide is that government interference in academic freedom is not confined to the letter of the law, but also the spirit — management seeking to zealously exceed that legal letter to show their willing compliance.

“Reputational damage” was a phrase used in this exchange. This, we can be certain, does not refer to the reputational damage of undermining academic freedom, but of annoying the government of the day and, potentially, upsetting its brand image.

A report by the Royal United Services Institute in the UK — hardly a hot-bed of Panda-huggers — suggested that the Australian governments rolling together of national security with concerns for academic freedom (citing various pressures placed on overseas Chinese students) was a mistake: “Safeguarding academic freedom depends on a recognition of the important differences between national security and academic freedom issues.” This is something this government does not recognise, and nor, it seems do universities. They are happy to curtail the latter in the hope that they won’t get accused by the government of undermining the former.

David Brophy again:

“It’s imperative that Australian universities resist such pressures. At a time when the national debate surrounding China is so crucial, they cannot afford to simply fall into line with a foreign policy shift that positions China as Australia’s enemy. But in the hands of the small cohort of administrators who currently run them, there is every chance that they will. Having put up precious little resistance to the trend towards privatisation, with all its deleterious effects on the independence of our universities, officials cannot be relied on to resist the political pressures now pulling them in a different direction.”

The University of Adelaide, like all universities, has a duty to protect academic freedom as absolutely central to its public mission. It is abundantly clear that we cannot rely on the university management to protect that academic freedom.

We must turn to the university itself — not the managers who claim that they are the university — but to the staff, students and alumni who are its true body. Which, at a time of savage and mostly self-inflicted job cuts (as Adam Lucas showed in these pages), is going to be a tough call.

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