SES indicates university students are more concerned about education quality than freedom of expression

For the first time the Student Experience Survey has undertaken to measure perceptions of freedom of expression on campus, but it seems students themselves are broadly more concerned with the quality of their education.

The Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (QILT) are group of surveys designed to give Australia strong performance data for assessing the quality of higher education in Australia. This August, the Student Experience Survey (SES) was released for the 2021 year. This is particularly interesting this year because it’s the first time that students’ perception of freedom of expression has been included in the survey.

For more than a decade now we have seen varying comments about freedom of speech and expression on university campuses: from the 2008 Inquiry into allegations of academic bias in universities and schools, to the back and forth in 2018 around Australian National University rejecting a strings-attached funding agreement for a degree in western civilisation, to commentary from various academicsjournalists and politicians. Examples of the ongoing discourse occur every year. In recent months, for example, we can cite a report about academics quitting the University of Melbourne’s Australia India Institute over academic freedom. These reports occur in a political and cultural landscape that is highly concerned with the rights of individual freedom of expression, and which has determined universities to be a particular ideological battleground.

Nevertheless, the recent publication of the 2021 SES (a survey sourcing responses from over 180,000 undergraduate and 80,000 postgraduate coursework students) indicates that education quality is actually a bigger issue on and off campus.

Since 2011, measures of the quality of the entire educational experience held surprisingly steady. About 78—80% of undergraduate students gave a positive rating each year… until 2020, when it took a precipitous dip to 69%. This decline has been broadly attributed to the vagaries of Covid-19 lockdowns and closures. This measure recovered only a little in the 2021 report, in which 73% gave a positive rating—a number that was the same across undergraduates and postgraduates for this year.

However, for the newly-created measure of overall freedom of expression at their institutions, the undergraduates gave an 87% positive rating, and the postgraduates followed at 85%. The contrast between this measure and the measure of overall educational experience is significant.

It seems that freedom of expression at Australian universities is better-supported than actual education is—at least, according to their students.

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