In 2008 the Senate had an inquiry into (left-wing) bias at Australian universities. I turned up at the inquiry and made a somewhat nuanced argument (or tried to anyway). To the extent that there is left-wing bias at Australian universities (indeed probably all universities in the English speaking world) it probably doesn’t matter all that much. The second part of the statement is more important than the first.
Without a doubt academics tend to be more left-wing than right-wing in orientation. This is mostly due to self-selection and the fact that intellectuals are likely to be left-wing. Both Friedrich von Hayek and Joseph Schumpeter have explained why this is the case. Hayek has argued that intellectuals are likely to be rationalist while Schumpeter points out that it is capitalism that generates enough of a surplus to sustain a large intellectual class. The bourgeois morality associated with prosperity also creates a tolerant climate that allows intellectuals to flourish. So it is unsurprising that universities are more left-wing in orientation than right-wing.
It is the second part of my argument – that left-wing bias doesn’t matter much – that people might find surprising.
We undertake a lot of consumer surveys within the university system. We ask our consumers, people we call “students”, what they have learned and discovered while at university. We do this every semester in a process called “final examinations”. The results of these surveys are often quite depressing – many students will recall and reproduce the corny jokes, the throw-away lines, the rude words you said when the classroom technology crashed, or the week the fire drill was held.
When alternative assessments are held, like written assignments, the first question students ask is “What are you looking for?”. They have learned that very often if they simply parrot what the lecturer wants to hear that they’ll get a better mark. The thing is that many university graduates go on to work in the for-profit sector of the economy, vote Liberal, or worse become Liberal politicians, hang out at disreputable ring-wing blogs, and generally behave in ways that their lefty education should have discouraged. Hence, my point, bias at universities doesn’t matter much. The labour market quickly sorts the wheat from the chaff.
Why am I rabbiting on about this? Our good friend Andrew Bolt has pointed to recent poor behaviour at Australian universities.
Socialist Alternative protesters have howled down a lecture at Melbourne University by former Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella and assaulted Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop at Sydney University.
In May, also at Sydney University, students, backed by two academics, burst into a lecture by retired British colonel Richard Kemp, chanting, “Richard Kemp, you can’t hide, you support genocide”. Kemp’s crime? To argue that Israel had tried very hard to avoid civilian casualties in its war with Hamas.
Appalling behaviour to be sure.
Suppressing free speech and censorship, however, isn’t unique to the university sector. Paul Sheehan explains:
Among its election undertakings was a commitment to narrow Section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act, which extends the law against racial vilification to language which “offends”. This is an absurdly broad term to insert in any law.
The Abbott government reneged on that undertaking, no surprise given that it then enacted a suite of national security laws which gave government sweeping power to clamp down on free speech while diminishing its obligations for transparency.
The classic liberal ideal of Voltaire – that he may be offended by your views but will defend your freedom to express them – is alien to this government.
On September 29, an American anti-abortion activist, Troy Newman, was deported after he arrived after his visa had been terminated. Newman has never been convicted of a criminal offence. He believes abortion is murder, a widely-held position in the US.
On September 28, the Turnbull government also denied a visa to American rap star Chris Brown, because he was convicted six years ago of serious domestic violence charges, for which he was placed on five years probation, which he has served.
In November 2014, the Abbott government cancelled the visa of an American self-styled dating coach Julien Blanc, after a campaign against him on social media. His views are objectionable but his seminars are voluntary and he has no criminal record.
When even a Liberal government is profoundly illiberal, why should we expect anyone else to be any better?