Murdoch whistleblowers ‘overlooked’ by regulator’s investigation

Scant feedback raises transparency concerns over Australian regulator’s compliance activities

October 27, 2020
Professor Eeva Leinonen

Murdoch University has declined to release a letter detailing the Tertiary Education Standards and Quality Agency’s investigation of its international operation because the regulator has said that it considers the matter closed.

“We identified things where we wanted to see improvement, and we put those enhancements in place,” said provost Romy Lawson. “To keep focusing on an assessment that has been formally closed just doesn’t seem appropriate.”

Earlier this month, Murdoch vice-chancellor Eeva Leinonen told staff that Teqsa was satisfied with the university’s international student admissions and English-proficiency requirements. She said the university had “self-identified” shortcomings in some of its processes and “immediately implemented remedial changes”, but found “no systemic misapplication of admissions criteria”.

This account has been disputed by Murdoch whistleblowers who say the university ignored the problems until they were exposed in a 2019 TV broadcast. The account also appears at odds with Teqsa’s statement that the university had been “at risk of non-compliance” because of “inconsistent application of its own admissions practices”.

Professor Lawson denied that the two statements were inconsistent, and said Murdoch had identified problems with a “small” cohort of international students in early 2018 – a year before the TV broadcast. “We’d already started to put measures in place,” she said.

“This is the normal running of a university. You monitor what you do, sometimes find issues and remedy them.”

Teqsa says it identified international students who were “ill-equipped to progress”, but has declined to say how many. It has refused to release its report or letter to Murdoch, to outline who it approached during the investigation or to acknowledge that it did not contact the whistleblowers.

A spokesman said Teqsa was constrained from commenting on such matters by “privacy issues, confidentiality obligations, Teqsa’s objects, functions and powers, the law of defamation and principles of administrative law”.

Critics said it was impossible to draw any conclusions about the adequacy of the investigation without seeing the report or at least a description of its methodology and a list of interviewees.

Whistleblowers Graeme Hocking and Duncan Farrow said they were not aware of any contact between Teqsa and academics or students affected by Murdoch’s international recruitment practices. They said reports from the investigation should be made public. “Not only should justice be done; it must be seen to be done,” they said.

A recent audit of Teqsa concluded that its compliance and enforcement processes were only “partially” effective. “Documentation of most of its recent compliance assessments was poor,” says the report from the Australian National Audit Office. “It does not report on the number of compliance assessments undertaken or their outcomes.”

Teqsa has acknowledged a perception that it gives universities favourable treatment. “If the same thing happened at a private provider, it’s hard to see them surviving,” said Paul Oslington, a professor with not-for-profit Alphacrucis College.

“My sense is that Teqsa is trying to be fair and reasonable across both sets of providers. [But it should] ask the people who have first-hand knowledge – not people three levels up the administrative tree.”

Professor Lawson said the regulator’s job was to appraise the institution as a whole rather than the experiences of individual staff. Teqsa had scrutinised hundreds of documents and data including admissions statistics. “It’s not been light touch – it has been absolutely thorough,” she said.

Michael Tomlinson, a former director of assurance at Teqsa who was not involved in the Murdoch assessment, said complaints about international students’ English-language proficiency arose frequently. “It is difficult to reach firm conclusions as these observations can easily be dismissed as anecdotal,” he said.

Dr Tomlinson said Teqsa operated in a “constraining” legal framework and had inherited a “peer review panel model” of assessments. “Where the facts are in dispute, it is necessary to put in intensive work on the ground supplementing analysis of the paper evidence with detailed interviews with multiple personnel,” he added.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Murdoch whistleblowers ‘overlooked’ by Teqsa investigation

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