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STANDING COMMITTEE ON EDUCATION, EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS
Academic freedom in school and higher education
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STANDING COMMITTEE ON EDUCATION, EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS
CHAIR (Senator Marshall)
Academic freedom in school and higher education
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STANDING COMMITTEE ON EDUCATION, EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS
(Senate-Thursday, 9 October 2008)
MARTIN, Professor Brian
CHAIR (Senator Marshall)
SAUL, Dr Ben
Senator JACINTA COLLINS
GELBER, Dr Katharine Patricia
Senator JACINTA COLLINS
FREITAS, Mr Nigel
McCOY, Mr Noel
WITHERS, Dr Glenn Alexander
Senator JACINTA COLLINS
CASSIDY, Dr Nathan John
McCONKEY, Professor Kevin Malcolm
Senator JACINTA COLLINS
WINDSCHUTTLE, Mr Keith Edward
- Senator HUMPHRIES
Content WindowSTANDING COMMITTEE ON EDUCATION, EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS - 09/10/2008 - Academic freedom in school and higher education
CHAIR (Senator Marshall) —I declare open this public hearing of the inquiry into academic freedom. This issue was referred to the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Committee subject to Senate approval. The committee has agreed to report on 27 November 2008. The terms of reference include consideration of intellectual diversity and indication of ideological, political or cultural prejudice in regard to teaching content and conduct. The committee has also been asked to consider the need for a charter of academic freedoms.
Before the committee starts taking evidence, I advise that all witnesses appearing before the committee are protected by parliamentary privilege with respect to their evidence. This gives them special rights and immunities because people must be able to give evidence to committees without prejudice to themselves. Any act which disadvantages a witness as a result of evidence given before the Senate or any of its committees is treated as a breach of privilege. Witnesses may request that part or all of their evidence is heard in private; however, I also remind witnesses that giving false or misleading evidence to the committee may constitute a contempt of the Senate. I welcome our first witness, Professor Brian Martin. We have received your submission and I invite you to make an opening statement to the committee, to be followed by questions.
Prof. Martin —My written statement is pretty short. I do not need to say anything more.
CHAIR —Okay. I want to ask you about complaints raised by students about the ideological or political bias of their lectures and tutors, and reports of intimidation of students through the marking down of essays. Do you accept that that is under the heading of academic freedom, or is that more in the realm of professional misconduct?
Prof. Martin —Probably it is worth looking at different definitions of academic freedom, and one is in relation to universities overall and their autonomy from government, typically. The second main usage is in relation to individual academics and their right to speak out on matters of public interest, either in their professional domain or in a wider context. Those are the two main definitions. I could go to others to extend it to students and so forth, but I have not really seen that much in writings about academic freedom talking about student rights. Certainly they are important issues.
Senator HUMPHRIES —Is Whistleblowers Australia the organisation that John McNicol did or does head up at the moment? Do I have the same organisation?
Prof. Martin —John McNicol was involved in the foundation, but he bowed out very early on in the piece. I think I have only met him once or twice; that was in the early nineties. At that time the name was Whistleblowers Anonymous, which sounded unfortunately like people trying to swear off being whistleblowers, so it was changed to Whistleblowers Australia. It has really been under a different sort of regime ever since John McNicol left.
Senator HUMPHRIES —We had ACT legislation some years ago, and I remember that he was consulted at the time about that. You make reference in your submission to the lack of advantage in changing processes or procedures but an increase in the skills of people to deal with issues associated with enforcing rights with respect to freedom of expression and so on. We are focusing in this inquiry particularly on students, and I wonder how you feel it is possible to develop the skills of students to be able to enforce whatever rights they might have—and those rights are not particularly clear to me at least. But if there are such rights to complain, to bring to the attention of authorities what they would see as bias, how do you develop those skills in students?
Prof. Martin —I might just preface my response by describing the normal way that I respond to many whistleblowers who come to me, and a whistleblower could be a student, it could be a senior professional in an organisation, somebody in a church, the police or whatever. Often whistleblowers come and they have already spoken out, already suffered reprisals and already gone to an ombudsman or undertaken grievance procedures inside the organisation. Nearly always by the time they come to us those things have turned out either to be useless or even to have made things worse for them. The typical thing that I say is that, first, you should do a sort of practical thing such as documenting your case and often writing up a short account. It may mean consulting with others, building a support group, and part of that is being able to understand the organisation that they are in, that they are up against, that the problems are, and to then formulate a strategy to oppose the injustice or whatever the problem is. So it is really a practical sort of approach that I take in most cases.
There are some people in Whistleblowers Australia who are much more expert at the official processes. So, if someone has an appeal to the AAT or whatever, ‘Then here is what you do—you raise this,’ and so forth. My focus has been on the practical side because that is where most people seem to fall through the cracks. They trust in the official processes; that is fine when they work, but often they do not, and it is a weak person against a strong organisation.
The practical advice that I would give is spelled out in one of my books, The Whistleblower’s Handbook; it is all there, and there is lots of stuff on the web, but they are the sorts of skills that lots of people do not have. There is no training in it that anyone ever gets, and no-one is told that, while the system is said to be fair, actually you could be subject to serious injustice. When these things happen suddenly to conscientious employees, they just do not know how to handle it, so an understanding and the skills in how to respond, I think, are fundamental—and the same thing would apply to students. A lot of students come into university and they think, ‘Ah, these teachers, they know everything; they’re sort of ideal representatives of society.’ I am not sure whether students really think that, but some of them must—
CHAIR —Senator Mason was a lecturer once.
Senator MASON —They did not think that about me, Chair, I can tell you!
Prof. Martin —But, in any case, people tend to trust those in authority, that they are going to do the right thing. So if they are suddenly subject to some unfair treatment—it could be that they presented their original ideas in an essay and the teacher takes the ideas and publishes them somewhere else, that sort of exploitation of student work, which happens—then what do they do about it? They think, ‘Can I put in a complaint somewhere?’ I know that the complaint procedures are set up. They are very effective, but they very seldom turn against the people who have a greater amount of power. So it is about having students develop the skills, and part of the skill is to understand when it is a serious injustice as opposed to, ‘This is just my interpretation; maybe it is really just an honest opinion by the lecturer,’ and so forth, but how do you decide that? Part of that is being able to talk to others, get independent views and make a judgement as to whether there is something really wrong. If there is something really wrong, and a lot of people think so, how should they deal with it? Sometimes it is better just to ignore it altogether and get on with your life; sometimes you want to make a major issue out of it; and sometimes it is something in between, such as going and talking to somebody and getting advice, getting an academic onside to go and make a representation about it. There are a whole range of things, and the key thing is to look at the different options.
Senator HUMPHRIES —But none of us plan to be whistleblowers. It comes on us with great surprise, I assume, in virtually every case. So, if you are suddenly in a position where you want to take advantage of processes you are not aware of, how should we make sure that, for a student particularly, that knowledge or access to that knowledge is readily available?
Prof. Martin —I think it is about having a wider awareness that these things can happen and knowing that there are some people around who do have experience in how to deal with them—and these are often the student associations. Students turn to them. When they say, ‘I will go and find someone in the student union who can give me some advice’, that may or may not be a wise idea, but the idea of getting advice is useful. But, if it is a sort of amorphous, supermarket style of university where everyone is just going along to their class and they do not really have any connections, then students often do not know who to turn to. That is a big problem. So, the more there are interlinking networks that allow students to find out where they can get reasonable support that is going to be well informed and effective, the better off they are going to be.
A lot of lecturers would be happy with that too, because the other side of the story is the students who make what others consider to be unreasonable complaints, just like there are people who claim to be whistleblowers when they just have a personal grievance. We get plenty of those coming to Whistleblowers Australia. So where students make unreasonable claims—and some of them have a mental illness and there are all sorts of things that go on—that is an issue for the academics, and they have set up all the procedures to deal with those students. Those procedures often then dampen down the genuine cases. That is the sort of dilemma whenever you set up procedures to deal with situations: you get the genuine ones and those that are not genuine.
Senator HUMPHRIES —Should we have posters up in classrooms and tutorial rooms and so on indicating what students’ rights are and where they can go for help if these incidents arise?
Prof. Martin —It is very hard to say. The modern-day student is not like the old days when they were spending all their time on campus in a sort of community, learning. The students that I have are much more likely to have part-time jobs, about 90 per cent of them, and they are juggling all these different parts of their life—jobs, studies, personal life. Often they have family issues going on. So if you stuck something up in a classroom it would be just like the emergency notices we have about what you do: we have to raise that at the beginning of every semester, but it is sort of like in and out because, unless you actually have to practically deal with something periodically, it is just ignored. I am raising the negative side; by all means—
Senator HUMPHRIES —Yes. So tell me how we do this? How do we get the skills in the hands of students?
Prof. Martin —I would say the sort of thing that is useful is that you get a reasonably small number of students who are active about these sorts of things—and putting stories in student newspapers is useful—and go around, especially to large lectures. They do it at the moment on certain issues. They come in and the lecturer gives them, say, 10 minutes to speak about certain issues. We could have the students come in and say, ‘If you have a concern, here are the people to contact.’ Maybe they could have a leaflet to pass out. That sort of thing is useful. It just makes students aware that somebody is taking this seriously. There is a set of resources if you need it; maybe even just a website. Each uni has a sort of student challenge. These days information is no longer the long narrative. Students search the web to find what they need to solve their problems at the time.
Senator HUMPHRIES —Okay. Thank you.
Senator FIFIELD —Yesterday we heard evidence from a number of witnesses, including academics, and representatives of the National Tertiary Education Union, and those witnesses indicated that, in their professional experience, they had never come across any instances of academic bias. It struck me as odd that, in a career that might span 35 years, they had never come across an instance personally or heard of one. I was wondering if any students have approached your organisation over issues of academic bias?
Prof. Martin —Students almost never approach Whistleblowers Australia, but I have certainly had cases where students have come to me as an academic—in different capacities but showing me something that they think is outrageous treatment. Personally I would say that this happens all the time. It is inevitable whenever there is someone passing judgement on something else that one’s personal biases can enter into that judgement. The hard part is to know when that is happening, how serious it is and, more importantly, what to do about it. I think in most cases students just put up with it and carry on. Maybe they avoid that lecturer in the future. The students feel that they are very weak in relation to their teachers, although they do not realise that actually they are fairly strong because the academics are very vulnerable to student complaints. Basically, academics do not really care about students; the students will come and go, and the academic will still be there, so the academic’s reputation is much more long lasting than the duration of the student’s period there. So students have much more power than they realise.
Senator FIFIELD —But they underestimate their ability to inflict damage, for want of a better word?
Prof. Martin —That is right, and they are afraid that, if they complain, there will be reprisals in the future. I think that is a serious issue at the postgraduate level or even the honours level, when you get into one-to-one supervision. Then, if a student gets targeted, they have nowhere to go. It is not just about taking another class; the person’s colleagues are actually the ones who will be making judgements. At the typical sort of undergraduate level, first and second year certainly, students might make complaints and so forth, but what happens if they put in a complaint is the universities say, ‘We don’t really worry about whether it is bias or just inadvertently marked down too much; give it to somebody else to mark that essay.’ That is the easy way out for academics. They say, ‘We are not trying to judge whether this academic was being unfair for one reason or another; get someone else to mark it.’
Senator FIFIELD —So, in your view, bias is a real issue?
Prof. Martin —Certainly.
Senator FIFIELD —I am not necessarily suggesting it is a systemic problem or something that is inflicted deliberately by an academic on a student; but in your view bias is a real problem?
Prof. Martin —I would say bias is a real problem, but I would say there is another thing, and this relates to the actual whistleblowers versus the impact on others. If one person speaks out and gets attacked, everyone else does not speak out: they are too afraid because they saw what happened. That is the bigger problem, in my view. It is not so much what happens to that person but the spin-off effect. What happens in universities is that most students are afraid to speak out, not because they have ever seen any students suffer reprisals; they just assume that this is a risky business.
Senator FIFIELD —There is a great power imbalance.
Prof. Martin —There is a power imbalance, but the strange thing is that, for someone like me, teaching social science, I actually would like the students to be speaking out much more—disagreeing with me. I have written a lot of stuff, it is all on the web, and the students very seldom ever challenge my things. I would love a bit of intellectual challenge there. ‘Come on, give me a bit of criticism!’ But they are afraid. And I have heard students say this many times about other lecturers: they are trying to find out what the lecturers are looking for, because then they will give it to them. These are strategic students; they are not just there to push forward their own view. They want to get ahead. They want to get good marks, so they are trying to figure out what their lecturers want. That is a far bigger problem in my mind than the bias that may exist.
Senator FIFIELD —Your evidence is refreshing, because our academic witnesses to date have been very big on the rights and the freedoms of academics but have not seemed to care terribly much about the rights and freedoms of students. Academic freedom has been construed as freedom for academics, with little concept of the rights of students.
CHAIR —You can say that, but I am not sure that that is the evidence that has been put before the committee so far. I think every witness has talked about the rights of students and the importance of that, but nonetheless—
Senator FIFIELD —In a very passing and cursory way before they race to the ultimate rights of academics!
CHAIR —Well, I guess it is a good example about how people take different things from the same evidence—or the same tutors, I suppose!
Senator FIFIELD —Let me put it this way, Chair. I am glad that we have a witness who is putting a little more emphasis on the rights of students rather than the rights of academics. They are of course important, but I think that is what true academic freedom is about. It is about the freedom and the rights of the academic and the freedom and the rights of the student as well.
Prof. Martin —I did write a book, which I could never find a publisher for, called Tied Knowledge: Power in Higher Education. It is on my website. There are various chapters about the structural factors that influence higher education, including the state, capitalism, professions, academic self-interest. I had one chapter called ‘The subjugation of students’, because it is a fundamental feature of higher education. But, surprisingly, there is a lot of academic writing on most of those other areas but there is not very much on subordination of students. I think it is mainly because the literature is written by academics as opposed to being written by the students.
Senator FIFIELD —A lot of these academics in particular disciplines would spend a lot of time researching and focusing on issues of power and balance, but this seems to be one that they are not quite so concerned about sometimes.
Prof. Martin —A lot of my research has been on suppression of dissent, looking at academics but also more widely outside of university systems. But early on, and it is one of the chapters in the book, Intellectual Suppression: Australian Case Histories, Analysis and Responses, which is more than 20 years old, I came across a few examples where students had been what I called exploited: it could be a PhD student where there was a religious difference between the student and the supervisor and the student was then being hindered and basically prevented from submitting the thesis. There can be all sorts of reasons for that, but I documented a few of those examples. I think they are all anonymous. None of them wanted to have their name put to this short chapter called ‘Academic exploitation’, but that sort of thing does go on.
Senator MASON —I was going to ask you about that when it came to my turn.
CHAIR —Well, it is your turn.
Senator CASH —I have one very quick question, and then I will let you have the floor, Senator Mason. Professor Martin, we talk about giving students more knowledge in terms of their rights if they feel they have been aggrieved. What do we do to address the situation that was raised yesterday that academics themselves do not necessarily get any formal education in terms of how to actually go out and teach, in terms of their understanding of academic freedoms and whether or not there are any parameters around academic freedom and how they behave in a classroom situation? What do you believe that we can do to make academics more aware of what they should be doing in terms of academic freedom within a lecture-classroom scenario?
Prof. Martin —I would say that one of the important things is to open up academics—and this, you might say, is professional development—so that they are more willing to share with colleagues what happens inside the classroom. The strange thing about universities is that a large part of the so-called work of the academic takes place in the classroom or in preparation for it, but most of us when asked, ‘Have you ever visited a class of one of your colleagues?’ will say ‘No.’ It is very rare for an academic to sit in and watch another academic’s teaching, whereas on research you publish an article and everyone can read it, and there are referees and it is peer reviewed and so forth. Teaching is an area that does not receive the same sort of peer scrutiny as other areas. I do not think a punitive approach is the way to do this, because what people are actually afraid of is that someone will look in and see that they are not doing it as well as they could as a way of penalising them as opposed to helping them do better.
I think the thing to do is have peer observation as a means of improvement and, as part of that, we say, ‘Do you see the way this person does it?’ Most people want to improve. If you see others and get ideas or you hear a student interviewed in a way that has helped them see things, you think, ‘I could teach that way.’ There are all sorts of little things that you can do by observing. There are people in universities who are promoting this sort of thing in the staff development, career development or teaching development—whatever you want to call it. They are promoting that, but it is a struggle because there is a deeply ingrained culture that this is a private activity and you do not need any training. You just come in and do it because you are delivering information, you are delivering knowledge, as opposed to the learning process.
Senator CASH —But that is the nub of the issue. Are you delivering information and are you delivering knowledge?
Prof. Martin —I think that is totally outdated. Personally, I am at the radical end of things, and I would say it was outdated once printing was developed. The idea of giving a lecture—
Senator MASON —In 1540?
Prof. Martin —As the joke goes, a lecture is a way for information to go from the notes of the academic to the notes of the student without passing through the head of either one. The lecture implies that that is an efficient way of information transfer, but once you have a written text, it is much more efficient. People can read five times as fast, and there is research that is decades old that shows alternatives to the lecture, like reading, are just as effective for learning information but more effective for generating critical thinking. But the lecture continues on. My analysis is that higher education is as much a part of a tradition of the authority in control as opposed to a dialogue of learning process. That is a bit separate from what you are looking at. In terms of teachers improving, I would suggest more thought and more peer interaction in terms of how we can improve not just teaching but helping students to learn better. We live in a totally different world these days, with the internet and all the rest.
CHAIR —Earlier you talked about bias. I am wondering about the extent of it.
Prof. Martin —No-one knows. The short answer is that I do not know anyone who has ever researched bias by academics in marking or even in the way they set their assignments. Setting the assignment probably has the most bias. You set it in a way that leads students down certain tracks. The bias in marking is something that is a bit more open, in a way.
Senator CASH —It can be challenged?
Prof. Martin —Yes, but I would say that no-one has researched it, no-one knows how widespread it is, how serious it is or what impact it has. I will just mention, at the risk of going off the track, that there is a lot of research about how students’ perceptions of the world respond to university teaching, and basically they do not change their world view. They might be worried about bias, but they are not being influenced; we are not brainwashing a whole bunch of students to lead to a different perspective on the world than they had before they came in. More likely, the careers that they go into later are much more influential than anything we teachers ever do. That is a sweeping generalisation but that is the research I have seen. There is more in that direction to say there is a problem.
Senator MASON —Senator Fifield touched on an issue that we have not really looked at thus far. Our focus has really been on undergraduate students. You mentioned graduate students or honours students, because there the relationship between the academic and the student is, for want of a better term, more academically intimate.
Prof. Martin —It is one-to-one, usually.
Senator MASON —Yes, and certainly in a sense if there is an issue—
Prof. Martin —It is an apprenticeship.
Senator MASON —you are far more vulnerable. I remember when I was involved in universities, working there and indeed while I was doing my thesis, that there was an enormous sense of vulnerability when you are having your dissertation examined. The stories are legend about someone who says, ‘This is a marvellous thesis,’ and gives you a first-class mark, and someone else fails you. Do you think the procedures are adequate to deal with that?
Prof. Martin —No; no procedure could be adequate. This is the trouble. Procedures do not solve it because, with any procedure you set up, the interpersonal relationships and the possible biases or conflicts of interest and so forth usually operate below that margin of official things.
Some procedures are useful. I will give you an example from the University of Wollongong. It was years ago when I arrived in 1986. It was the honours thesis, and it was part of the tradition that there were three examiners and the supervisor was one of the examiners. I had an honours student the very first year, and I said, ‘I am not going to do it because it is a conflict of interest. I am supporting this student; I have given them lots of guidance. I am almost like marking my own work if I am one of the examiners.’ What actually happened was a lot of examiners then became advocates for their students, a sort of protege syndrome. In a few cases they got a bit of offside with the student, so they undermined the student.
Senator MASON —It cuts both ways.
Prof. Martin —That is right. I was not the only one. Our current academic deputy vice-chancellor was leading the push to change this. Eventually, a couple of years ago, they brought in procedures to say that supervisors cannot be examiners. That is an example of an official process that has changed which has improved things, but then a couple of departments were totally insistent that only the supervisor really knows enough to be a suitable examiner and then changed their rules so they could get around the university’s regulation. I am not singling out the University of Wollongong as egregious because I think Wollongong has some of the best procedures in this. They have moved on that, and we have very, very good procedures for PhD and master’s theses in terms of controls over conflicts of interest and so forth. But, irrespective of having really good procedures, the students do not know that they have good procedures now. They are afraid to challenge their supervisor in case of having some sort of conflict and they do not realise they could change supervisors even the day before they submit to get support and so forth. At Wollongong you can actually submit the thesis without the supervisor’s endorsement.
Senator MASON —Is that right?
Prof. Martin —That is right. It does not guarantee it will actually go to examiners. The thesis examination committee has to make a judgement about whether it is up to scratch, but there is at least one case where the student submitted it that way and the thesis was passed. So the procedures have changed, but it is not just the procedures per se; it is part of the cultural change within the organisation and making people aware of the issues involved and the students being more articulate, aware and confident in addressing things and knowing who to talk to. As a senior person in the faculty—senior in age, experience and rank—as well as having a role in the faculty as publications mentor—it is a strange name but I basically advise a whole bunch of research students about things—a lot of them come to me for informal advice as well as formal sorts of things.
Senator MASON —I think that is why some of us, at any rate, were surprised at Dr Allport’s evidence that in her 35 years she had never come across a case of political bias or apprehended political bias. Even in my short time in academic life, I was aware of it. I am not saying that these were established cases, but there were an enormous sense of vulnerability and certainly claims of political, personal or some other bias.
Prof. Martin —Certainly.
Senator MASON —It is not uncommon at all, particularly at the level of honours theses and PhDs, where you are quite vulnerable if you and your supervisor fall out. I am like Senator Fifield; I was really surprised at that evidence.
Prof. Martin —I look at this as a spectrum. This applies at the very highest levels of research. I have talked to people who claim that there has been Nobel Prize winning research, where the stuff has gone to the journal, the referee has sat on it and the publication has been delayed and, as a result, they have missed out on a Nobel Prize because the other work got there. So it goes on at the very high levels. The one saving grace at the low level, which is the students, is that most academics do not really care that much. In other words, the mark that a student gets is not a big deal to an academic. Getting a paper published is more important, or getting a grant or impressing colleagues and so forth. That is not to say that students are always safe, because individuals vary enormously in terms of how much they care about their commitments to certain ideas, perspectives or even personality clashes.
There is a whole bunch of things to do with interpersonal relations. I was on sexual harassment committees for 15 years, and a whole bunch of abuses go on in terms of consensual sexual relationships added on to the sexual harassment cases. There are consensual sexual relationships between academics and students that can affect the student’s result because those relationships often break down and there can be reprisals against the student or the student can feel they will not be treated fairly. Or, if the relationship continues, other students can feel that something unfair is going on. All of that stuff goes on, so there can be ideological bias, but there are all sorts of interpersonal bias that can occur.
CHAIR —Professor, we are going to have to leave it there. Thank you for your presentation to the committee today.
Prof. Martin —Okay. Thank you.