On one hand, Massey has to deal with the complexities of “free speech”, which in itself is completely subjective – even the Free Speech Coalition lists eight “categories of speech that are not included in free speech”.
On the other hand, there are economic considerations that must be taken into account. All organisations need to remain financially viable to exist. Therein lies the problem.
Massey’s 2018 Annual Report shows its revenue included $108.6 million in student fees from domestic students. In comparison, it received $84.1m in student fees from international students. The same report shows Massey had 5331 international students and that 3722 students were born in China. Of course, not all Chinese-born students are international students, but it is probably fair to say most are.
In other words, Massey, probably like many if not all of our universities, is beholden to its international full-fee paying students from China.
Elers points out Massey gets a lot of income from Chinese international students.
China can literally turn the tap off overnight. It threatened to do that to the United States a few months ago due to the trade war between China and the US, which has resulted in a “record number of Chinese students” at British universities. The Global Times, the Chinese state newspaper owned by the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece the People’s Daily, wrote earlier this year: “American universities shouldn’t be so arrogant. By leaving China’s booming market and leaving Chinese students, those universities would feel regrettable.”
So, the question becomes: Are we prepared to risk our fourth largest export earner, $5b and 50,000 jobs, for the sake of “free speech” in the form of posters?
If you follow the deontological position of ethics, you might subscribe to the view that removing posters is morally wrong, and therefore you are willing to jeopardise $5b and up to 50,000 jobs because upholding “free speech” is paramount.
In contrast, if you adhere to the teleological position, you would make a decision based on the best overall consequences – that might mean you are not willing to jeopardise $5b and up to 50,000 jobs, so you pull down the posters. What I have outlined is a simplified approach – I am not a philosopher – but either way it is definitely a “no win” situation for Massey.
Elers concludes (and I agree) that Massey pulled down the posters to appease Beijing, as they were scared of losing revenue.
But I disagree with his analysis that this was a hard decision and a no win either way.
First of all, you need to consider than China is like Rio Tinto – a good bluffer. Are they really going to boycott Massey University because they refused to take some posters down? Where will they send them instead? Otago? Auckland? Oxford?
Keith Ng makes this point:
But even if there are economic consequences, the decision is clearly the wrong one. Just consider where this ends if a NZ university decides to trade free speech for appeasing the Chinese Government. If we’re okay with them taking down posters supporting the HK protesters then what next would they be willing to do?
- Ban campus access to the Wikipedia article on Tiananmen Square?
- Ban protests in support of the HK protesters?
- Refuse to publish any academic research critical of China?
- Refuse to allow academics or students from Taiwan to study or lecture?
- Allow the Chinese Government to approve any textbooks used in classes about China
The only reason that China even bothers to pressure universities is because they have shown in the past that they will succumb to pressure.
NZ universities should follow the lead of the University of Chicago.