AUS Tertiary Update Vol 11 No 25 - Fresh threats to academic freedom and Undercover police exposed at Otago
24 July 2008
Fresh threats to academic freedom
A former New Zealand vice-chancellor has cautioned that universities must be more than mere instruments of economic growth and development. Bryan Gould, former vice-chancellor of the University of Waikato and current chair of the board of the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, issued his warning in opening the University of Auckland's winter lecture series, "Challenges for research in modern academia", earlier this week.
Calling on universities to be vigilant not just in defending themselves against familiar threats, Mr Gould said, "They must also be alert to new challenges, which sometimes come in unfamiliar guises." Expanding on the theme, he added that the danger today is not so much that universities are threatened by direct, hostile, and deliberate assaults by governments or the private sector, though it also must not be assumed that these were things of the past.
"The threat arises from the growing importance that universities are increasingly invited to assume in promoting economic growth and development," said Mr Gould, adding that commentators from across the political spectrum and from all parts of the economy have agreed that universities are essential agents of economic change.
"Our economic future is increasingly said to depend on the research effort undertaken by our universities and by their role in producing graduates with the skills needed to promote economic growth," he said. "This view is naturally congenial to the universities, since it affirms their value to society and appears to guarantee at least an approximation of adequate funding. But the argument comes with an unstated but potentially damaging downside, that this role is what universities are essentially about and that it is only to the extent that they fulfil that expectation that they will be supported and funded," he said.
Pointing to the dangers of the approach, he continued, "If it is asserted by political or business leaders that the universities have failed to come up with the required outcomes - that the economy is, for example, short of particular kinds of graduates or is handicapped by the failure to undertake particular kinds of research projects - then continued support and funding for the universities will be placed at risk."
He said that the problem, then, is that universities would be tempted, so as to maintain continued public support and funding, to go along with the inviting but dangerous assumption that their only true value is as instruments of economic change. "In doing so, they would accept a barely recognised but increasingly damaging constraint on their freedom to pursue knowledge - and we would have significantly misread our own intellectual history," he concluded.
Undercover police exposed at Otago
Posters with pictures of plain-clothed officers working on campus and labelled "Narks in our Class?" and "Narkiology 101. How to spot a nark" appeared around the University of Otago earlier this week, according to a report in the Otago Daily Times. One poster apparently shows plain-clothed officers involved in the recent arrest of three people at a National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (Norml) stand at a Otago University Students' Association market day.
Another shows plain-clothed officers at a regular protest "smoke-up" on campus. The posters name the officers, give their badge numbers, and ask people who think there might be an undercover police officer in their class to contact Norml.
Norml leader Abe Gray is reported as saying that he is unsure who had put the posters together and posted them on the Norml website, from where they could be downloaded, but that he believes the images were taken from video footage recently posted by Norml members on YouTube. He said the posters had probably been put together because students felt uncomfortable being under surveillance on campus. Mr Gray is also quoted as saying that, from information police had divulged during various interactions with them, it is believed they are also working undercover in lectures.
The Dunedin area police commander, Inspector Dave Campbell, said he was disappointed, but not surprised, photographs of police officers were posted on the Norml website. Police are running an operation, he said, to stop offences against the Misuse of Drugs Act on the university campus and, to date, as a result, had issued nine trespass notices to non-students and three to people enrolled at the university.
A university spokesperson said that no-one was able to comment on plain-clothed officers working on campus at the time the report went to press.
A nation of university ghettoes?
A widening gulf between local and international university students in Australia is creating segregated classes, cultural cliques, and religious ghettos and raising fears of a backlash on campuses, according to a recent report.
International education is a $NZ15.5 billion industry, and overseas students' fees account for an average 15 percent of universities' overall funding, but a higher-education expert warns of "informal but real segregation". Professor Simon Marginson, from the centre for higher education at the University of Melbourne, said local students tend to work off-campus and are not active in student life, and international students spend most of their time on campus, generally in the library.
While the atmosphere on campuses generally supports international students, Professor Marginson said, "You've got this odd situation with the local students half-disengaged in a way I've never really seen before. The international-student industry runs off the back of a reasonably strong local system which presumes a healthy relationship with the local students; all of that has become the marketing pitch. That's the flashpoint that worries me more than any other - that it could spring back into resentment," he said.
Almost two-thirds of international students are from Asia, and many have no contact with local students. Eric Pang, president of the National Liaision Committee for International Students in Australia, said overseas students are not given a strong welfare system and have to rely on peers for support, yet were accused of failing to integrate. Many had told the committee, "There's not much international students can learn from Australia in terms of culture, or in terms of English. After all, the standard of English of Australian students is not high anyway."
From Sushi Das and Erik Jensen in the Canberra Times