Murdoch denies demise of major is payback for whistleblowers

As time drags on since their signature course was turfed out, Australian whistleblowers’ colleagues fear their discipline will die a slow death

August 14, 2020
Wrong answer
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Colleagues of three Australian whistleblowers fear that their academic work unit is destined for decline following the demise of their signature undergraduate course.

Murdoch University’s decision to replace its bachelor of science in mathematics and statistics course triggered speculation that the move is payback for three staff members’ 2019 appearance in a TV broadcast criticising Murdoch’s international operations.

But the university said the replacement was part of its regular efforts to “refresh” its courses’ appeal and relevance, and that only a handful of people were graduating from the course each year. Provost Romy Lawson said the university wanted to establish a more applied course geared to areas such as data analytics.

“Big data is everywhere, but you need people who can understand and work with data. The blockchain requires people who understand the algorithms behind how it works,” she said.

Professor Lawson said less than a quarter of graduates from Murdoch’s current natural and physical science courses found full-time employment within six months. “It’s not setting our students up for the future, and that’s what we want to do as a university,” she said.

Professor Lawson said she expected the new course to be approved by Murdoch’s academic council in October. Although the old course was no longer available through Western Australia’s tertiary admissions centre, she said it “has not been discontinued as yet”.

Academics from Murdoch’s mathematics and statistics section dismissed such arguments as semantics. They said that with no maths course currently listed by the admissions centre, students would look elsewhere.

In a group statement, the academics said they had not been consulted about the major’s cancellation and had received no written confirmation about its status, except that no new students would be accepted.

The group had generated several course proposals to replace the current major and all had been blocked from progressing, most before entering any formal approval process. This “represents a complete breakdown of the usual course portfolio renewal processes”, the statement says.

“It is difficult to consider recent moves against the discipline as anything other than vindictive.”

Figures seen by Times Higher Education suggest that the old course was profitable and that enrolments had been rising and had compared well with other Murdoch science majors. Murdoch’s mathematical sciences was rated above world standard in last year’s Excellence in Research for Australia exercise, ahead of most of Murdoch’s other broad fields of research.

While the major constituted relatively little of the section’s workload – staff also help teach courses such as engineering, information technology and science – they worry that its loss will be a deathblow for the discipline.

The university said PhDs and honours courses would continue to be available in maths and statistics. But staff said that with no major, prospective maths students would avoid Murdoch and current staff would leave.

Nicola Armstrong recently resigned as head of discipline to join crosstown Curtin University early next year. Dr Armstrong declined to comment on her departure but has previously expressed concern on Twitter about the major’s cancellation.

Duncan Farrow, one of the trio of whistleblowers, said other courses destined for replacement had not been removed from the tertiary admissions centre’s listings. “Other disciplines that have had their majors cancelled have had new ones in place ready to go,” he said.

Another whistleblower, Gerd Schröder-Turk, said mathematics warranted “particular respect” as a foundational discipline of any university.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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