As a supporter of the Free Speech Union, it’s a pleasure to have been asked to introduce their most recent research on speech in universities, the second Annual Academic Freedom Survey Report, 2023. 

I have spent my whole professional life working in academia. Two years ago, I co-authored a letter to the editor of The Listener (the group of us who wrote it became known as The Listener 7.)

The outcry at our opinions, which were basic concerns about calling mātauranga Māori the same thing as science, was overwhelming. The experience has raised concerns about academic freedom for many across Kiwi universities. 

A well-functioning university is the product of an inquisitive society that is open to change. Our society faces challenges on so many fronts today: economic, environmental, educational, democratic, social, and more. While the university is not the only party that has a role in addressing these challenges, academics are supposed to help us understand the problems we are facing, and test and develop the potential solutions.  

Yet, this cannot happen if the experts in their fields are not free to voice solutions which are unpopular or controversial. Academic freedom means that we are supposed to be able to do our jobs, to serve New Zealand by understanding the true facts of these issues, not just what we assume them to be. Today, I believe we have less academic freedom to truly research and address the biggest issues facing our country than we have had at any point in my academic career. 

As the Free Speech Union’s Annual Academic Freedom Report claims: Foremost amongst these themes, is what can only be described as a climate of fear in academic settings. Multiple respondents told us about their fear of speaking up on certain topics, the penalties they felt would result in terms of job loss or barriers to promotion if they did, and their constant self-censorship. Even filling in this survey was perceived as risky by some.

<<Read the full Academic Freedom Survey 2023 Report now>>

A majority of academics who responded at five of our eight universities disagreed that they were free to state controversial or unpopular opinions, even though this is one of the specific features of academic freedom as defined in the Education and Training Act 2020. Across all eight universities, only 46% of academics agreed they felt free to question received wisdom and state controversial and unpopular opinions. The rest disagreed. Men in particular, (59%), believed they were not free to voice these views.

When asked about how comfortable they felt discussing certain topics in their institution, over one-third said they didn’t feel comfortable discussing religion (63% were comfortable), half were not comfortable discussing sex and gender (50%), and over half were not comfortable discussing race (45% were comfortable). Only 41% said they felt comfortable discussing the Treaty of Waitangi/colonisation. 

When one sector of society feels they are free to participate and contribute to a discussion while another does not feel free at all, we all lose. No matter who it is that is included/excluded, we will not develop the answers we need to address complex questions if major stakeholders are not free to participate. Time and again in our past, important voices in our communities have not been free to contribute. To knowingly repeat this error again is folly. 

But the question occurs to me ‘Why is the Free Speech Union having to conduct this work and advocate on behalf of academics and their freedom?’ Where are the Tertiary Education Commission, the Minister of  Education, the Vice-Chancellors of universities, and the Tertiary Education Union? 

Surely, each of these parties is well placed to assess whether academics are, in fact operating with freedom, and if not, consider the causes and implement policies to address this. 

These results are concerning, but the lack of engagement with research like this, and the problem they point to, is even more concerning. Results last year indicated many academics do not feel they have adequate academic freedom.

Each Vice-Chancellor was invited to participate in the research this year and learn from the responses of their own academics. Not a single one agreed. Likewise, where is the Minister of Education on this issue? Where is the Tertiary Education Union or the Tertiary Education Commission? 

Freedom in the university sector is stagnating, and its leaders either don’t know or don’t care. We need to pay attention and do something- our future is far more bleak if we cannot voices solutions that move us forward, as disruptive or unexpected as they may be.  

The Free Speech Union fight across a number of sectors, but I believe their work with the university is the most important.

I know that to produce a report like this costs thousands of dollars (this report cost $10,000) [which is actually cheap compared to what government departments and councils spend on reports —Eds], but I believe its value is exceedingly greater.

Two years ago, when 2,000 academics turned on my colleagues and me for daring to co-author the famed Listener 7 letter (we certainly were willing to voice controversial and unpopular views — and it came with a big cost), the Free Speech Union spent months fighting our case. I am grateful for their support and believe their work is needed now more than ever. 

Together, I’m sure the best days for Kiwi academic freedom, and our best solutions and ideas, can be in front of us.