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Thursday, 4 December 2008
Page: 8129


Senator MARSHALL (11:00 AM) —This inquiry has been unusual in a number of respects. It has not really been an inquiry into academic freedom in the sense that this term is generally understood. It has really been an inquiry into allegations of biased teaching in social science and humanities courses as they are taught in universities and schools. It was never clear to the government party senators what the purpose of the inquiry was, or what possible use it would be. A Senate committee is unsuited to the task of chasing after evidence of subversive teaching, not least because we could never agree on what it is. This inquiry has been a waste of our time, in my view, though it has not been without interest.

The inquiry is based on the premise that there is a strongly leftist agenda which is influencing the course content and the teaching of it, and this presents a problem of unspecified magnitude and importance. The committee received fewer than 30 submissions making this point. We do not know what the other 300,000 undergraduate students thought about the issue. Even if it were true that the majority of academics have a broadly left liberal political stance, the question is whether this matters. Clearly, graduates of Australian universities over the past 50 years or more have been more or less evenly distributed across both sides of the houses of the Parliament of Australia. If there is a leftist conspiracy in universities it has not been conspicuously successful in achieving any political ends.

The difficulty the committee had was in dealing with the evidence of bias. Submissions and testimony gave us anecdotes which did not provide much context for the complaints. Even if we had received much more information, it would have been difficult to reach any conclusions other than that there probably were cases where academics were exceeding the proprieties of lecturing and tutoring. There is probably a very small amount of bad teaching going on. What surprised the committee was that students with complaints about bias did not appear to use the fairly elaborate complaint mechanisms which universities have instituted. Apparently, they were happy to come to us, rather than complain directly to their deans and department heads, or through the very formal processes that all universities have in place for addressing complaints of this nature. The quality assurance measures which have been instituted across the higher education sector are intended to deal with problems of poor teaching. If there is a problem—and the evidence was so scant as to be insignificant—then the solution lies there. It is not the role of the Senate to go blundering in to sort out the internal affairs of universities. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted.