Intellectual and academic freedom are essential and defining characteristics of autonomous and publicly accountable modern universities. 
In the university context, intellectual freedom refers to the right of all staff and students to freely hold political and intellectual views and values and express them publicly, without fear of reprisal or retribution or restriction by university policies and procedures. 

Specifically, intellectual freedom includes the right, without fear of harassment, intimidation or unfair treatment, to: 

  • Express opinions about the operation of the university and higher education policy more generally;
  • Pursue critical open enquiry and to discuss freely, teach, assess, develop curricula, publish and, research within the limits of their professional qualifications, competence and professional standards;
  • Develop, interpret and administer policy and procedures within the limits of their professional qualifications, competence and professional standards; 

  • Participate in public debates and express opinions about issues and ideas related to their discipline area or area of professional expertise;
  • Participate in professional and representative bodies and to engage in community service; and
  • Express unpopular or controversial views. 

  • Discuss, teach, assess, develop curricula, and engage in community service; 

  • Research and publish;
  • Publish and speak in public debate constrained by a responsibility to reflect scholarly standards; 

  • Express opinions about the institutions in which they work or are enrolled;
  • Participate in representative bodies such as the NTEU; and
  • Participate in decision-making structures and processes within the institution. 

Intellectual freedom rights do not include any right to vilify, harass intimidate or otherwise act unlawfully nor are they intended to protect any person engaging in these forms of behaviour from the operation of relevant laws. 

That said, NTEU does not support the use of managerial tools such as requirements to follow reasonable and lawful directions as a manner of circumventing or inhibiting academic freedom. 

NTEU preferred terminology in describing the rights and responsibilities of members of the university community to freely engage in teaching and research without fear of reprisal is academic freedom. The term academic freedom also applies to the rights and responsibilities of universities with respect to promoting and maintaining their commitment to free inquiry, institutional independence and the autonomy of their academic governance. 

Academic freedom is not limited to academic staff. It represents a multifaceted set of principles, rights and obligations that apply to all members of a university community engaged in academic pursuits including teaching, research and community service.  Academic freedom has international currency and consists of a series of rights and privileges which have been framed over a number of decades and articulated in a range of formal statements, including:

  • The 1940 American Association of University Professors’ Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure;
  • The 1997 UNESCO Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel;
  • The 1998 International Association of Universities Statement on Academic Freedom, University Autonomy and Social Responsibility; and
  • The 2005 Academic Freedom Statement of the first Global Colloquium of University Presidents.

The International Labour Organisation’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work and its Follow Up (June 18, 1998), Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, 1948 (No 87) and Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949 (No 98) are also relevant as academic freedom includes the freedom to participate in representative bodies such as the NTEU.

The Higher Education Support Act 2003 was amended in 2021 to include a definition of academic freedom, based on the definition proposed by Robert French AC in his Report of the Independent Review of Freedom of Speech in Australian Higher Education Providers.  The Act also requires universities to have a policy on academic freedom and freedom of speech, which can be based upon the Model Code proposed by French.

Importance of Academic Freedom

Academic freedom is an essential and defining characteristic of the modern university.  The creation, advancement and dissemination of knowledge can only occur within an environment that defends the rigorous free exchange of information and ideas and the freedom to hold, receive and disseminate ideas without restriction or fear of reprisal. 
Academic freedom entails the rights of members of a university community, without administrative constraints or fear of retribution, to freely:  

  • Discuss, teach, assess, develop curricula, and engage in community service; 

  • Research and publish;
  • Publish and speak in public debate constrained by a responsibility to reflect scholarly standards; 

  • Express opinions about the institutions in which they work or are enrolled;
  • Participate in representative bodies such as the NTEU; and
  • Participate in decision-making structures and processes within the institution. 

At the institutional level, commitment to academic freedom requires the university to: 

  • Assert institutional autonomy, and in particular the right to determine for itself, on academic grounds, its research and teaching practices and priorities;
  • Protect and support staff participation in university governance and representative bodies such as the NTEU;
  • Protect academic integrity above the private or corporate interests of third parties. In receiving support from corporations or other private interests, higher education institutions must not compromise their autonomy and independence, or that of their staff; and
  • Support its staff and students in advancing knowledge, ideas, theories and technology, and in serving society at large.
Academic freedom does not include the right to engage in unlawful discrimination, vilification or harassment. NTEU believes in academic rigour and the observation of scholarly standards. 

Academic freedom does not provide protection for actions undertaken in a staff member’s personal life or personal capacity. However, NTEU does not believe that universities should unreasonably regulate or control staff members’ personal lives. 

Like other important academic functions like promotion and publication, NTEU believes that the arbiter of academic freedom should be the staff member’s peers, and not administrators or managers. 

Challenges to Intellectual and Academic Freedom 

NTEU notes the cumulative threats to academic freedom and free intellectual inquiry from both within and outside Australian universities. These include: 

  • Stricter performance management; 

  • The casualisation of the workforce in higher education, which puts workers in a more vulnerable position and more likely to self-censor or not fully engage their right to academic freedom;
  • Institutional plans to strategically concentrate research strengths; 

  • Institutional directions to staff to publish (or not publish) in specific journals;
  • A public policy climate adverse to public transparency particularly in relation to freedom of information, freedom of political speech on campuses, protection for whistle-blowers;
  • A public policy climate increasingly willing to make exceptions to academic freedom on grounds of national security interests; and
  • The propensity of universities to prioritise profitability, reputation and financial viability above core academic values, and to characterise as misconduct the exercise of academic freedom that may put those priorities at risk, including, in particular, the use of behavioural regulation such as codes of conduct, to pursue this agenda.

Governments also intervene in the exercise of academic freedom by:

  • Making funding contingent on achievement of the government policy objectives; 

  • Ministerial interference in the allocation of research grants through bodies like Australian Research Council;
  • Legislative changes that remove staff and students from structures of institutional governance. 

There are additional pressures on academic freedom and academic integrity as result of universities’ increasing reliance on income from sources other than government funding. 
Funding arrangements between universities and external organisations, including commercial partners, can restrict the ability of university staff to speak freely and critically about controversial issues. These funding arrangements can also constrain criticism of university management or that of external partners in the fear it might harm future funding.

Universities must adopt a principled approach in these circumstances, and must always follow the policies and procedures established to ensure academic rigour and quality. All such policies and procedures must be endorsed by both the workers and the Union. Academic governing bodies, and staff more generally, must be meaningfully consulted about commercial partnerships from as early as possible, to ensure quality and accountability. 

Principles for Universities 

NTEU believes universities must foster an atmosphere of academic freedom by establishing and enacting policies that: 

  • Are based on the principles of public accountability and probity;
  • Support and resource staff involvement in the broad spectrum of teaching, research and community service and explicitly acknowledge their right to exercise this autonomy without fear or favour;
  • Do not limit or constrain members of the university involvement in public debate and community service;
  • Respect the right of staff and students to comment publicly about matters concerning or affecting their institutions;
  • Provide or promote institutional and/or legislative whistle-blower protections;
  • Encourage collegiality and industrial democracy through consultation, shared responsibility and participatory decision-making;
  • Do not compromise the autonomy and independence of staff and students by agreeing to attempts by government or private interests to unreasonably influence or limit the nature of teaching and/or research undertaken by staff or students;
  • Ensure that the lawful, genuine and judicious expression of an employee’s intellectual freedom is a complete defence to any allegation of misconduct; and
  • Are developed with and endorsed by both the workers and the union of the university

This policy should be read in conjunction with 'Campaigning for Academic Freedom'