Oz rules in favour of sacked scholar

August 17, 2001

An international boycott imposed on the University of Wollongong after one of its senior academics was summarily dismissed in February has been lifted following a federal court decision last week.

Microbiologist Ted Steele was sacked by Wollongong vice-chancellor Gerard Sutton after he claimed that he had been ordered to raise the marks of two honours students he was supervising.

Professor Steele made the comments in January during a national debate over whether universities applied lower standards to fee-paying foreign students.

Professor Sutton said Professor Steele had made false allegations that had brought the university into disrepute. He sent a letter to Professor Steele in February informing him that he had been sacked.

But federal court justice Catherine Branson said Professor Sutton had failed to follow the procedures for dealing with academic misconduct set down in an industrial agreement with the National Tertiary Education Union.

The judge said the university was obliged to follow the processes, which involve establishing a committee of inquiry, before it could find that Professor Steele's statements about "soft marking" constituted serious misconduct.

Academic unions around the world, including the UK's Association of University Teachers and Natfhe, and the Canadian Association of University Teachers, condemned the sacking as an attack on academic freedom.

Ken McAlpine, NTEU national industrial coordinator, said the court decision sent a message to universities that they could not arbitrarily dismiss staff whose public comments they did not like.

Professor Sutton issued a statement saying the university believed it had operated within its enterprise agreement when it dismissed Professor Steele. He said the court's detailed findings would be studied before any comment would be made.

Judge Branson did not rule on damages or order Professor Steele's reinstatement. She gave the parties five days to reach agreement or make further submissions.

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