Universities are among the oldest continuous institutions on the planet. Over the course of a millennium, they have preserved, created and advanced knowledge worldwide, and they have carried the burden of acting as the conscience and voice of the communities and nations they serve. Universities have been, and continue to be, the nexus of creativity and critical thought, the vault of accumulated knowledge, and the cradle of new ideas. The interplay of theoretical inquiries and practical pursuits has, for centuries, been the hallmark of universities across the globe. It is within that intersection of abstract learning and applied praxis that generations of citizens have learned to think critically and to face the most disparate challenges with an open, inquisitive and rigorous mind.

Universities are properly composed of vibrant communities of students and scholars, as well as all those who participate in their pursuits and all alumni. Furthermore, they serve, and ought to be accountable to, the larger polity within which they are immersed, and the communities that benefit from, and depend on, their preservation, transmission and advancement of knowledge.

Universities have evolved over many centuries to serve the public good. Their primary duty is to the public at large, to the protection, maintenance, dissemination and pursuit of knowledge for the benefit of the public and must not be abused by a few privileged individuals or corporate entities.

In order to maintain their public function, universities have to guarantee and defend the principle of ‘academic freedom’. Such a principle is fundamental for the public good, and not, as it may appear at first, the privilege of an academic minority.[1]

To ensure that Australian universities can fulfil their purpose, and to guarantee the academic freedom fundamental to achieving such purpose, the Australian Association of University Professors has established ten pillars upon which Australian universities ought to be founded:

I. Universities are communities of scholars and researchers whose aim is to seek and create knowledge by pursuing free and open enquiry, scholarship, research and learning, and to assist and encourage students to do the same.

II. Universities should provide a nurturing environment that supports students, teachers, researchers and other staff to achieve their best as creative, inquiring and free-thinking people.

III. The inherent relationship between teaching and research- based inquiry in our universities needs to be nurtured, respected and celebrated.

IV. Research conducted in Universities is a public good that contributes to society academically, culturally, socially, and economically. To achieve these goals, academic inquiry must be free and open. Teaching, research and publication must be governed by disciplinary standards and not the political or social agendas of external parties.

V. Universities should be led by distinguished and respected scholars who regularly consult with the professoriate on issues concerning the operation of the university.

VI. Academics should be effectively engaged in university governance, with the professoriate providing leadership of disciplines, acting as mentors, and promoting academic principles.

VII. Universities should receive sufficient public financial support to ensure their autonomy. Financial governance of Universities should be subject to public scrutiny.

VIII. Any evaluation of teaching and research activity should be carried out by discipline peers and take into account contributions across all aspects of university work, including teaching, research and the wider community. This evaluation should be qualitative wherever possible and take into account the norms of the discipline in terms of qualitative vs. quantitative assessment and the level of institutional support and resources available for these core activities.

IX. The articulation of dissenting views, and free discussion between individuals who hold conflicting views, are key attributes of a healthy University and democracy – the provision of an open intellectual space for such discussions is a fundamental obligation of the University.

X. Universities must be free to act as a critic of society, maintaining an independent, free and open space of enquiry that responds responsibly to relevant environmental, social, cultural and economic contexts.

In order to ensure that those pillars can be maintained, we, the supporters of Public Universities Australia, believe the following principles, practices and protocols ought to be guiding the structure, governance, funding regimes and praxis of Australian universities:

1) The governance of Australian public universities must be collegial, transparent and accountable.

The governing bodies of Australian public universities must be accountable to both the entity they govern and the public they serve. To do so, these governing bodies must be composed of a majority of experts in academia and tertiary education, in accordance with international standards. Additionally, these governing bodies should also include distinguished individuals (including alumni of the university) who represent the broader communities universities serve. While financial, commercial and corporate expertise must be maintained, such expertise must not dominate the composition of universities’ governing bodies or unduly influence their functions.

Furthermore, university chancellors and vice-chancellors must be selected from among the most distinguished academics, preferably after wide consultation with all members of the university.

All decisions made by the governance bodies of Australian public universities must be transparent and visible to the entire community they serve. In order for this to happen, all discussions by governing bodies (unless they concern matters of a personal nature or else are commercial in confidence) must be open to the public, and detailed minutes of those discussions must be made publicly available in a timely manner.

2) All academic decisions must be made collegially by the academic community, and not exclusively by individual managers or a managerial hierarchical structure. Therefore, all non-academic governance over academic matters pertaining to the core university activities of teaching and research must be curtailed – or, where possible, removed – and decisions within particular faculties, schools or disciplines must involve the entire faculty, school or discipline following academic and democratic principles.

Furthermore, management – be it recruited or elected from within or outside the academic community – cannot have absolute discretionary authority by virtue of the offices they may hold. In particular, to maintain the fundamental principle of academic freedom of inquiry, it cannot have any authority to shape the horizon of allowable opinions that constitute the inherently pluralistic nature of public universities. In short, management has to serve the academic mission.

The academic scholarly community must be preserved, and, where necessary, re-established. Any targeted, intentional reduction of such community, as well as all consequential harm to academics and the scholarship they produce must be prevented and, where necessary, undone.

3) All salaries of the executive officers of Australian public universities – including, but not limited to, vice-chancellors – must be aligned with those of other leaders of public institutions and capped at twice a professorial salary. Overseeing the running of a university constitutes a considerable privilege that should be reserved to a moral elite. It is not logically possible to serve two masters and excessive remuneration not only sends the wrong signal but attracts individuals who are unsuited to university governance.

The hiring process of all executive officers must be undertaken by a committee that represents the university community.

4) A more potent independent prudential advisory body should be established at the national level to oversee the operations of Australian public universities. This body, composed of independent members, ought to safeguard and guarantee the nature and role of a public university, determine the minimum national academic quality and standards for core course content in all discipline areas, and oversee the operations of all Australian public universities in accordance with publicly established standards and principles.

5) Appropriate funding must be guaranteed in order for Australian public universities to pursue their goals and mandates. Such funding, however, should be rationalised, and targeted to ensure the following:

a. the body of knowledge represented by a sufficiently wide range of disciplines is maintained among an appropriately diverse range of universities. While not all universities may be able to maintain and pursue all disciplines, funding ought to be rationalised so as to ensure that all relevant disciplines are maintained and represented in a sufficient number of Australian universities across a sufficiently diverse geographical range.

b. an appropriate number of academic positions is secured to maintain the knowledge related to the above disciplines;

c. an appropriate number of research positions is secured to advance knowledge. Such knowledge must be both theoretical and abstract as well as practical and commercial. The pursuit of abstract knowledge must be preserved and protected to ensure the public good of otherwise ignored foundational and transformative ‘blue-sky’ research. Research and teaching are inseparable at the edge of knowledge.

d. sufficient funds are guaranteed every year for a number of graduates to complete their studies.

Furthermore, student fees should be minimized and accompanied by a select number of yearly bursaries and scholarships awarded to the best students to study in a wide range of disciplines.

6) All university finances and salaries (including all bonuses) must be fully transparent and made available for public scrutiny. This includes clear and consistent reporting standards for all cash-in and cash-out.

National standards for reporting employment figures must be established. These reporting figures must account for all permanent and casual positions in a clear and consistent manner.

7) Australian public universities must provide secure, safe, non-exploitative, and tenured employment. Tenure is a necessary means to achieve the following:

a. freedom to undertake unrestrained and creative research, teaching and extramural activities;

b. a sufficient degree of economic security to make an academic career sufficiently attractive.

Intellectual freedom and economic security – hence, tenure – are indispensable to the success of any academic institution in fulfilling its public obligations toward both its students and society at large.

Casual academic employment must be limited as much as possible. Ideally, no more than 20% of academic positions should be filled on a casual basis.

Universities should provide adequate career development opportunities for doctoral candidates.

All academic staff should have the opportunity to undertake both research and teaching activities.

8) Maximum academic workloads must be standardised to ensure that appropriate time is dedicated to research and other scholarly pursuits, teaching activities, and regular updates of disciplinary expertise.

The misleading and counterproductive metrification of academic work – including performance measures grounded in numerical values derived from funding, specific quanta of publications, student evaluations, et cetera – must be removed and assessments brought in line with the Pillars of a University outlined above.

Public Universities Australia is an alliance of organisations and individuals concerned by the current state of Australian universities and committed to ensure that the public value and function of Australian universities is fully realised. Public Universities Australia aims to represent the voices of scholars, students and staff of Australian universities.

Supporters of Public Universities Australia include:

Australian Association of University Professors (AAUP)

Academics for Public Universities (APU)

Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA)

[1] ‘To demand ‘academic freedom’, it is sometimes said, is to claim minority privilege. It is not – not when the demand is put in its only valid form. In that form it is a demand on behalf of everyone; not just on behalf of academics. The case for it is the same, in very general terms, as the case for freedom of speech, discussion and enquiry at large. That case, too, is a claim on behalf of everyone. It is a claim, not just for those who may themselves actively use the freedom to speak, discuss and enquire; but for the right of all to hear, read and see freely: the right of access for all to the results of ‘free speech’. But the general case for ‘free speech’ and free access to its results nevertheless has a special application to teaching and research. The functions of educational institutions should be distinct in one respect above all. Whatever else they may be designed to do, academic institutions of all kinds and at all levels must be critical. They must be committed to re-examining accepted knowledge, assumptions and practices. It is their job, whatever other jobs they have, to nurse scepticism and to apply it to established beliefs and the present order of things and to do so systematically. It is to promote and protect this quality that academic freedom is needed. And it is because this critical function of education and research is essential that academic freedom must be a matter of general concern.’ John Griffith, The Attack on Higher Education (Council for Academic Freedom & Democracy, 1987).