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Liberal education vs post-college daycare

Opinion Piece

Academic freedom is defined in s161 of the Education Act as “the freedom of academic staff and students, within the law, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions”. Without an unwavering commitment to this principle, universities are unable to perform their role as the “critic and conscience” of society, which the Act also requires of them.

Recent years have seen attempts by university administrators to limit this cardinal rule in response to the purported need to protect students from ideas that risk causing “harm”; an ambiguous notion that may often be reduced to fear of having one's worldview challenged.

This limitation on academic freedom is informed by the notion that universities should be a “safe space” for students, particularly those hailing from marginalised communities. But trying to create a safe space for feelings inevitably costs the ability of universities to play host to a safe space for ideas.

Massey University's academic freedom policy, for example, revised after the Brash affair in 2018, pays lip service to the sanctity of academic freedom and freedom of speech. Yet it claims that these freedoms might properly be restricted by the university in order to “safeguard the safety, health and welfare of its students”. Previously, attempts to suppress the exercise of fundamental freedoms required more than vague pronouncements that a person is made unsafe by the fact that somebody is discussing ideas they don't like (perish the thought).

As public institutions, universities have an obligation to uphold freedom of expression with the usual justified limits imposed by s5 of the Bill of Rights Act. Indeed, the only constraint is that academic freedom must be exercised within the “bounds of the law”. But according to Massey's proctor Giselle Byrnes, Massey's “policy supports and validates academic freedom while emphasising that with this freedom comes the responsibility to ensure that others are neither harmed nor hurt in the exercise of this privilege”.

This is not some difficult balancing act. It is an irreconcilable contradiction — either academic freedom is a right to be exercised within the bounds of the law, or it is a privilege to be exercised with regard to the feelings of others — it cannot be both. And if it is the latter, it is difficult to see how our public institutions of higher learning can function, if anyone who may find the confrontation of a debate stressful holds a veto power over them taking place.

It is a fact of life that asking questions runs the risk of offending others, and it is absolutely advisable that academics exercise their freedoms in accordance with high standards of decency and professionalism. But, to cite Professor Clark Kerr of the University of California, “The purpose of the university is to make students safe for ideas — not ideas safe for students”. While universities must be cognisant of their pastoral duties, they must also remain places where the space to think freely, state controversial ideas, and challenge orthodoxies is vigorously protected.

We might deduce that pastoral care has taken over from the academic and discursive role of universities. To place the potential for hurt feelings over academic freedom flies in the face of the whole purpose of a university; not for fragile minds to be coddled, but for robust thinking to be tested. In light of that, are universities now more akin to young-adult daycare centres than training institutions for tomorrow's innovators and leaders? For surely it is only children who would need such patronising “protection”.

  1. Peter Jones says:

    The whole world is being turned into an adult daycare centre.
    They are also coming for our children.
    Human intelligence is now considered a nuisance and AI is the way forward favoured by the people who want the great reset.
    Own nothing, think nothing so that you can be happy.

  2. Doug Smith says:

    Jonathan ignores the real world complexities and paradoxes of the right to free speech. It is his right to sweep these aside, and to present childish strawman arguments that mislead readers into thinking there should be no boundaries/consequences for the who, what, where, when and how of human communication. Better he had written a more informative essay, but it is his right to live in a simplistic safe-space. I would encourage thoughtful readers to dig deeper and aim higher than he has here. It’s at our fingertips these days: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_of_speech

    Skimming this topic for just 30 seconds, one can see that the myopic half-truths of Jonathan and the NZ Free Speech Union are either lazy or deceptive.

    1. Doug Smith says:

      The Massie U and Don Brash incident was not ignored. Consequent actions were taken.
      For a thoughtful analysis of free speech on American campuses, based on data not one-off anecdote, see:


  3. Lloyd Gretton, Auckland says:

    In multicultural societies, these issues do become more difficult. However, having gone down this road, it should be applied universally. The Gisborne Herald publishes inflammatory letters. Your time is up white man sort of stuff, with no recognition at all to the people who built all the institutions and civil law in New Zealand. Then replies to these letters, Gisborne Herald does not publish – presumably as hate speech, even though they are often no more than historical truths. But as Pilate said: “What is truth?” Fortunately there are social media outlets that publish replies without censorship. But they are now under censorship attack.