The Free Speech Union has released the results of the first Annual Survey on Academic Freedom, which paints a stark picture of the state of academic freedom in New Zealand. The research reveals that a significant minority (almost half) of the academics feel less free than free with respect to numerous core aspects of academic freedom surveyed. Part of the results are:

  • 45% of respondents felt more constrained than free to question and test received wisdom.
  • 47% of respondents felt more constrained than free to raise differing perspectives and argue against the consensus.
  • 47% of respondents felt more constrained than free to raise differing perspectives or to debate or discuss issues to do with gender or sex.
  • 50% of respondents felt more constrained than free to debate or discuss issues surrounding the Treaty, with almost one-third responding 0-2.5 (very unfree).

“Universities are supposed to facilitate an environment in which academic staff can express ideas without fear of retribution or persecution– where they can question and test received wisdom and state controversial or unpopular ideas. These results confirm what many academics have been privately expressing to us – they simply don’t feel free to venture honestly-held views on contentious issues,” says spokesperson for the Union, Jonathan Ayling.

“That almost half of the academics feel less free than free in most areas surveyed is a worrying indictment on the state of the tertiary sector, and raises questions about whether our universities are doing enough to honour their statutory obligations to preserve and enhance the academic freedom of their staff as required in the Education and Training Act 2020.

“Interestingly, the level of seniority did not necessarily translate into academics feeling they have greater academic freedom, with lecturers claiming to feel more free than professors. It is also clear that different academics perceive their level of academic freedom as dramatically different from their peers. For example, in terms of freedom to debate or discuss Treaty issues, 30% said it was very low (less than 2.5) and 36% said it was very high. It is unknown if this correlates to what their actual views on Treaty issues might be.

“Universities are meant to be places where the marketplace of persuasion and ideas creates and advances knowledge, pushing us beyond the status quo. Without the freedom to think and to share ideas freely without fear of reprisals, knowledge cannot develop and society can’t progress. Intellectual inquiry is unable to lead us into new discoveries and ways of thinking when a sizeable minority of academics at our universities feel more constrained than free in most areas.

“If academics and the tertiary educators of our nation feel more constrained than free on a majority of the questions raised, it is likely that the case is even more pronounced for students at universities across the country. The Free Speech Union will be releasing a subsequent survey shortly examining the perception of free speech by university students, also. Universities are failing to foster diverse perspectives, and this will have major implications in the options which we are aware of as we address complex and difficult questions going forward.

“The Free Speech Union commissioned Curia Market Research to survey New Zealand academics on their perceptions of academic freedom. New Zealand academics were asked to express how free they felt in respect of eight facets of academic freedom, on a 0 to 10 scale where 0 is totally unfree and 10 is totally free. 1,266 respondents agreed to participate.”