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 operate within historical continuities, and thus they have a direct and continuing responsibility beyond the past which they actively shaped. As a result, they have a moral duty to recognise and include diverse knowledge systems, particularly those that have been historically excluded and disenfranchised. Universities must continue to be a nexus of creativity and critical thought, a vault of accumulated knowledge, and a cradle of new ideas. The interplay of theoretical inquiries and practical pursuits has, for centuries, been the hallmark of universities around the globe. It is within that intersection of abstract learning and applied praxis that generations of citizens have learned 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 support 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.

The public university has evolved to serve the public good and to contribute to the open discourse as a critic and conscience of society. Furthermore, the public university is both an open knowledge resource and a cultural memory. In order to maintain their public function and credibility, therefore, universities must guarantee, justify and defend the principle of ‘academic freedom’. Such a principle in fact serves and supports the public good. [1]

To ensure that Australian universities can deliver on their promises, to guarantee sufficient academic freedom is in place to realise their core mission, and building upon the Pillars of a University devised by the Australian Association of University Professors [2] we, the members and 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 entities that they govern and the public they serve. To do so, these governing bodies must be composed of a majority of active members of the academic community, as well as individuals (including alumni of the university) who represent the broader community. Financial, commercial and community expertise must be maintained, but must not dominate the composition of any University’s governing bodies.

Chancellors and Vice-Chancellors must be democratically elected in order to be legitimized by the entire university community (including students, graduates and academic and professional staff).

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.

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, or to censor or penalise the open discussion of ideas and expression of reasonable opinions. 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 office-bearers of public institutions and capped at twice a professorial salary.

The hiring or electoral process for the appointment of all senior executive officers must be overseen by a committee representative of the whole university community.

4) 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.

5) 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 employment must be limited as much as possible. Ideally, no more than 20% of positions should be filled on a casual or fixed-term 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. Research and teaching are inseparable at the edge of knowledge.

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

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.

7) Two new independent advisory bodies should be created by the Federal Government to oversee and coordinate the activities of Australia’s higher education system:

a. An independent tertiary funding and standards body similar to the former Australian Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission (1977 – 1988), should be established at the national level to oversee and make determinations concerning national funding, education standards, and forward planning for the whole tertiary education system (including the TAFE sector, Australian public universities and private providers), and make recommendations about research priorities. This body would be composed of independent members nominated and endorsed by members of Federal Parliament in consultation with a wide range of representative bodies from the tertiary and broader education and research sectors. Its role would include safeguarding and guaranteeing the nature and role of the different education and research providers against undue political interference, including funding of the TAFE sector, public universities, and public research facilities and organisations. It should also determine (in consultation with the relevant learned societies) 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. This should include the ability to review and make recommendations concerning any financial and regulatory issues that affect these activities. It would take over some of the responsibilities of existing federal bodies, such as the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA).

b. An independent prudential advisory body. similar to the Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority (APRA), should be established at the national level to oversee the financial performance of Australian public universities from a management and public policy perspective. Its role would be to assure accountability and transparency in the use of public funds and assets in the operation of Australian public universities. This body would be composed of independent members nominated and endorsed by members of Federal Parliament in consultation with a wide range of representative bodies from the tertiary and broader education sectors. It would oversee and make determinations concerning appropriate levels of funds held by universities as financial assets to be used for purchasing university infrastructure and equipment (e.g. laboratories, instruments, equipment, and software), as well as the upgrading and maintenance of existing facilities and the construction of new buildings and facilities. This body would also advise on the prudential management of overseas student enrolments.¶

8) Appropriate funding must be guaranteed in order for Australian public universities to pursue their goals and mandates. Such funding, however, may be rationalised, and targeted to ensure that:

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 may be rationalised 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 and teaching related to the above disciplines;

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

Fees should be fully subsided by the government to ensure higher education is free for all domestic students.

9) 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.


[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).

[2] The Ten Pillars of a University
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.