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UNSW freedom of speech saga reveals danger of sector’s reliance on China

It was a cringeworthy and clunky way of managing a crisis, one which left UNSW open to justifiable criticism that it was bending to the will of the Chinese government to protect the millions of dollars in revenue it receives each year from Chinese international students. Liberal MP Tim Wilson accused the university of cowardice.

The article was based on comments from Human Rights Watch Australia director and UNSW adjunct lecturer Elaine Pearson.

The article was based on comments from Human Rights Watch Australia director and UNSW adjunct lecturer Elaine Pearson.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

To make it worse, the university appeared to apologise for posting the tweet in a letter sent to its Chinese students, alumni and business partners, while apologising for deleting it in a letter sent later to staff, in English.

What a mess. And an unnecessary one. The university should have stood its ground and never deleted the article or the tweet in the first place. The fact it did speaks volumes about the dangerous liaisons Australian universities have entered into with China to chase more income.

UNSW is not the only institution caught out. University of Queensland student activist Drew Pavlou has threatened to take UQ to court over a suspension for misconduct that he claims is linked to his criticism of the Chinese government and its influence on the university. Charles Darwin University is also in the spotlight after it apologised to upset Chinese students over an engineering assignment question on the “Chinese (Wuhan) COVID-19 virus outbreak”.

While the dependency of Australian universities on Chinese money has left them compromised, the COVID-19 pandemic has left them desperate. Fee-paying international students normally account for 27 per cent of university revenue in Australia – and China is the largest customer. But the closed border means foreign students have been unable to enter Australia this year and universities are expecting to lose billions in revenue as a result.

The deteriorating diplomatic relationship between China and Australia – triggered by Australia’s call for an independent inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic – has also hurt universities, with China advising its citizens not to study in Australia.

Faced with such a sharp hit to their incomes, universities – including UNSW – are now making unpopular budget cuts wherever they can.

But universities, first and foremost, are places of learning, through discovery. Former High Court chief justice Robert French makes that clear in his 2019 review into freedom of speech at Australian universities. And that means exposure to ideas which at first may seem unpalatable: a university education is meant to challenge your thinking.

That process of discovery relies on freedom of thought and expression – by students and academics. There are limits on freedom of speech, but avoiding offence is not one of them. The Chinese nationalists who protested at the UNSW article would do well to remember that.

On Friday Education Minister Dan Tehan announced a review of universities’ efforts to protect free speech and academic inquiry on campuses. Some federal MPs are now calling for a parliamentary inquiry into foreign influence at Australian universities. 

This is a good idea but the whole saga has only shown how critical it is that universities find new sources of income beyond China – and that universities receive adequate public funding so they can operate uncompromised. This is in the national interest; such funding provides for research that boosts the economy, it ensures young Australians receive a good education; it assures our sovereignty; and it secures an open and liberal marketplace of ideas from which all of humanity can flourish.

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