Murdoch did fast foreign intake pivot before whistleblower claims

Internal documents reveal rapid shift to South Asia in Australian university’s international operations

January 22, 2020
Source: Getty

An Australian university abruptly changed its overseas student intake in the run-up to a television broadcast that alleged that the institution was recruiting Indian students with inadequate English language skills, according to internal documents.

Data obtained by Times Higher Education suggest that a surge in foreigners studying at Murdoch University’s Australian campuses was almost entirely attributable to enrolments from the Indian subcontinent, with the number of new students from South Asia increasing fourteenfold in the three years from 2016, after barely changing in preceding years.

The share of new international students who were from the South Asian region – Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – climbed from a quarter of the total to three-quarters over the same period, according to the data, with the number of commencements from India multiplying sixfold in 2018 alone.

The internal records contain different information from Murdoch’s annual reports, in which student numbers are largely expressed in full-time equivalent terms.

They suggest a marked change in Murdoch admissions staff’s treatment of would-be students from the subcontinent. Between 2014 and 2017, applications from South Asia to study at Murdoch’s Australian campuses were several percentage points less likely to attract offers than applications from other regions. But in 2018, South Asian applications proved about 15 percentage points more likely to elicit offers, and in 2019 the margin increased to nearly 20 percentage points, according to the data.

This appears to contrast with other Australian education institutions’ approach to applicants from the subcontinent. Student visa reports from the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) show that India, Nepal and Pakistan, along with Thailand, consistently attract the lowest visa grant rates of the major source countries.

Murdoch’s changing enrolment patterns coincided with events that shone a spotlight on its international education activities. An ABC Four Corners broadcast in May 2019 aired allegations from three Murdoch whistleblowers that the university was enrolling international students with inadequate English language capabilities in a bid to address its “unsustainable” budgetary position.

Four months later, the DHA raised Murdoch’s immigration risk rating to the worst possible setting, reflecting the proportion of Murdoch students or would-be students who had lodged unsuccessful or fraudulent visa applications, had their visas cancelled, overstayed their visas or subsequently applied for protection visas.

Murdoch is one of only two Australian universities with this rating. To obtain visas to study at these two universities, people from countries thought to represent a moderate immigration risk – including China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Bhutan – must provide evidence that they have the financial resources and English language skills to live and learn in Australia. This evidence is not required for study at other universities.

A court document filed by Murdoch, as part of legal action against one of the whistleblowers, complains about a lack of “facts or evidence” supporting the Four Corners allegations. The whistleblower, Murdoch mathematician Gerd Schröder-Turk, had raised issues about the university’s international enrolments in mid-2018 in his capacity as the academic staff-elected member of Murdoch’s senate.

In October 2018, the then-chancellor told Dr Schröder-Turk that his “serious allegations” had been “made on broad terms with very little to no evidence supporting them”, according to the court document.

Asked by THE whether senators had been apprised of changes in Murdoch’s international enrolments, the institution said that details of discussions at senate meetings were confidential and that it did not comment on current legal matters.

The internal data emerged as Murdoch confirmed that it had terminated its contract with a major supplier of Indian students, Overseas Education and Career Consultants. Murdoch said it regularly reviewed agents “to ensure that we uphold high standards through a process of continuous improvement and best practice”.

“The allegations which are being made about international students, about overseas agents and about recruitment practices are not new – they have been dealt with by internal and external audits, and independent reviews. None of these substantiated the allegations being made,” a university spokesman said.


Print headline: Murdoch did swift foreign intake pivot

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Reader's comments (1)

During my 10 years as a Lecturer at another Western Australia university, I found that a number of overseas students had plagiarised their assignments and/or paid others to write their assignments. Consequently I followed University Policy and failed the students involved. My Head of School stated that "I was getting paid enough and should pass all overseas students". I refused and as a result of my actions I was discriminated against, abused, and continually harassed. I was never promoted, despite my ranking for research, publications, and international seminars (Visiting Professor at Universities in England, Scotland, Finland, Russia, Belarus, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Malaysia) which was in the top 33% for at least 5 years. Thus Murdoch University is not alone in their abuse of staff who try to do the right thing in order to uphold the reputation of their University. Surely the Australian Government should have set up a Royal Commission many years ago to address these problems, but numerous politicians turn a blind eye to what is happening, or maybe they feel their own qualifications may be investigated.


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