Murdoch ‘wrong to blame’ whistleblower for visa downgrade

Ministry says change to score – a key plank of claim against Gerd Schröder-Turk – cannot be affected by media coverage

November 20, 2019
Optus Stadium, Perth
Source: Getty

An Australian university stands accused of making a demonstrably unfeasible inference in its claim that a television appearance by one of its academics has cost it millions of dollars in international students’ tuition fees, as part of court proceedings to make him pay “equitable compensation”.

Perth’s Murdoch University has taken action against mathematician Gerd Schröder-Turk – the academic staff-elected member of the university’s governing body, the senate – over his comments broadcast during an ABC Four Corners programme in May.

Dr Schröder-Turk alleged that Murdoch was admitting Indian students with inadequate English language capabilities, “setting them up for failure” in a rush for cash to address the university’s “unsustainable” budgetary position. He said that he was worried about the students’ well-being, with some hinting at “extreme financial distress”, as well as academic integrity problems stemming from their recruitment.

He said that he had gone public with his concerns after repeated attempts to have the problems addressed internally had achieved little. The university subsequently attempted to remove him from the senate, prompting him to launch action in the Federal Court.

In late September, Murdoch filed a cross-claim alleging that it had suffered “loss and damage” as a consequence of Dr Schröder-Turk’s disclosures to the ABC and two other media outlets, and citing five “particulars” to support this claim.

The first particular was a move by the Department of Home Affairs to raise Murdoch’s immigration risk rating to level 3 – the worst possible rating, for the first time in its history – after the broadcast.

Murdoch is one of only two Australian universities with a level 3 risk rating. This means that to obtain visas to study at Murdoch, people from countries considered to represent even a moderate immigration risk must supply extra evidence of their financial capacity and language ability.

Murdoch claimed that this adverse rating had hampered its international student recruitment. It said that the intake this semester had been 14.8 per cent lower than forecast, with a likely revenue impact “in the order of millions of dollars”. The university earned A$74 million (£39 million) from international students last year, up from A$55 million in 2017.

However, Home Affairs risk ratings are based purely on immigration metrics such as rates of unsuccessful and fraudulent visa applications and students overstaying their visas. “Media coverage does not influence a provider’s immigration risk rating,” the department told Times Higher Education.

Murdoch’s reaction to the Four Corners allegations contrasts with that of the University of Tasmania, which commissioned governance expert Hilary Winchester to review its international recruitment practices – and made her recommendations public – after attracting criticism on the programme.

National Tertiary Education Union president Alison Barnes, a former management academic, said that textbooks were “littered” with “examples of businesses targeting whistleblowers rather than dealing with the problem”.

“It sends a terrible signal to publicly persecute a staff member who’s raised awareness of practices that presumably the university would rather deal with than hide,” Dr Barnes said.

A Murdoch spokesman said that the university “does not comment on legal matters”.

The institution’s approach has attracted scathing criticism from academics in Australia and overseas. A petition calling on the university to abandon the legal action and launch an independent inquiry instead has garnered more than 30,000 signatures.

The Australian Institute of Physics also called on Murdoch to drop the legal action, while an open letter from 57 academics to Murdoch vice-chancellor Eeva Leinonen warned that the damages claim had set a “dangerous precedent”.

“It is a long-established principle of academic freedom that academics must be able to criticise university governance,” the letter says. “The claim…is highly intimidatory to all Australian academics and risks the capacity of Australian universities to pursue excellence in research and teaching.”

Aberystwyth University mathematician Adil Mughal, a long-standing collaborator of Dr Schröder-Turk, told THE that the case exemplified “what happens when the core values of higher education are betrayed for the sake of money”.

Murdoch has experienced turmoil in recent years. Richard Higgott resigned as vice-chancellor in 2014 amid a corruption inquiry that later found that he had engaged in misconduct, including orchestrating a close friend’s appointment as deputy vice-chancellor and accessing adult sites on a university computer.

Professor Leinonen, who replaced him in 2016, guided the institution from a A$5.4 million deficit to a A$15.6 million surplus in 2018. Her earnings rose some A$180,000 to about A$935,000 last year – proportionally, the biggest pay increase of any Australian vice-chancellor.

Murdoch’s spokesman said that the vice-chancellor’s remuneration “has been set after being benchmarked against other equivalent roles in the higher education sector” and was “reviewed and approved in line with policy and via the appropriate governing body”.

“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. Nonetheless, Murdoch has consistently taken and will continue to take allegations most seriously,” the spokesman said.

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