Whistleblower row university limits governing body’s powers

New rules at Murdoch limit staff members who senators can speak to and remove obligation to report corruption to external watchdog

December 18, 2019
Source: Getty
Can’t talk: there are restrictions on discussing senate topics outside meetings

An Australian university that is alleged to have brushed off internal warnings about its overseas enrolment and was later sanctioned by the government over its foreign student intake has curtailed powers that could help its governing body investigate future failures.

Under sweeping changes to their binding guidelines, Murdoch University senate members with concerns about the institution’s operations may seek information only from Murdoch’s senior executives or other approved contact people.

If they are unhappy with the results of their enquiries, they are instructed to seek redress through the university’s regular complaints process. They are also barred from discussing anything they learn in senate meetings with anybody who was not present at the meetings, unless it has been disclosed in senate minutes.

The university said it has adopted these instructions, set out in a recently revised document called the “Senate statement of governance principles”, as part of “its ongoing commitment to improving Murdoch’s governance standards”.

Asked why the changes were considered necessary and how they had improved governance standards, a Murdoch spokeswoman said the document was “reviewed regularly and benchmarked to ensure that it remains in line with current best practice governance”.

The changes, the spokeswoman added, had been “made by resolution of senate. As set out in the senate statement of governance principles, details of discussions at senate meetings are confidential.”

Times Higher Education understands that the changes to the document were made earlier this year, after the senate’s staff-elected academic member – mathematician Gerd Schröder-Turk – raised concerns in the senate about Murdoch’s recruitment of foreign students.

In May, Dr Schröder-Turk went public with his concerns in an ABC Four Corners broadcast. He accused Murdoch of enrolling Indian students with inadequate English language capabilities, “setting them up for failure” in a revenue drive to address the university’s “unsustainable” budgetary position.

Days later, the senate took steps to remove him as a member. After Dr Schröder-Turk launched court action to prevent this, Murdoch filed a cross-claim suing him for the millions of dollars it claimed to have lost from its international operations because of his media statements.

According to documents filed in the Federal Court of Australia, Dr Schröder-Turk claimed that the issues he had raised warranted his attention as a member of the senate because they posed a risk to the reputation of the institution.

The documents say his media disclosures were “made honestly and in good faith…to protect the welfare of students and staff” after his attempts to raise his concerns in the senate had been “investigated and dismissed”.

He was told, the documents say, that his complaints “were serious allegations made on broad terms with very little to no evidence supporting them”, and that an investigation by an independent barrister had found the allegations to be mostly “unsubstantiated”.

In September, a decision by the Department of Home Affairs suggested that it had come to a different conclusion about the suitability of Murdoch’s overseas recruitment, raising the university’s immigration risk rating to level three, the worst possible setting.

The rating reflects the proportion of Murdoch students or would-be students who had lodged unsuccessful or fraudulent visa applications, had had their visas cancelled, had overstayed their visas or had subsequently applied for protection visas.

The changes to Murdoch’s governance guidelines also removed previously stated obligations on senators to alert the chancellor to senate actions that conflicted with its public duty, and to report potentially corrupt or illegal activities to Western Australia’s Corruption and Crime Commission (CCC).

Alison Xamon, a Murdoch alumna, former Murdoch senator and current Western Australian member of parliament, said that she was “absolutely appalled” by her alma mater’s efforts to “effectively stifle appropriate governance”.

“The idea that people are not going to be able to consult with their colleagues, to ensure that the best decisions are being made in the interests of the university, just defies common sense. I don’t understand why they are putting so much energy in trying to cover up dissent rather than dealing with issues which keep getting raised,” she said.

Last month, the conference of Australia’s Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) heard that governing body members had a responsibility to investigate further when they came across troubling information about their universities’ activities.

“Discuss with your colleagues. Engage. Talk. That’s your responsibility,” higher education strategy expert Mark Douglas told delegates in a workshop titled “Academic governance issues related to admission standards of overseas students”.

Governance expert Hilary Winchester said that governing body responsibilities were clearly laid out in the Higher Education Standards Framework (HESF) underpinning TEQSA’s regulation of universities.

Sections of Murdoch’s revised senate guidelines that outline the senate’s responsibilities and powers do not appear to list important requirements set out in the HESF, including an obligation on the governing body to ascertain that formal complaints, allegations of misconduct and critical incidents are “monitored and action is taken to address underlying causes”.

This is not the first time that governance at Murdoch has come under scrutiny. In a 2016 report into a Murdoch scandal that precipitated the departure of Richard Higgott as vice-chancellor, the CCC warned that a university senate “must have a system of robust and continual governance”.

“The relationship between a senate, usually represented by the chancellor and a vice-chancellor, must be one of trust, openness and honesty,” the report says. “Professor Higgott, when vice-chancellor, did not live up to that trust. This report illustrates what happens when a vice-chancellor does not act with probity and a senate fails to effectively articulate the parameters within which a vice-chancellor should act.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline Whistleblower row campus curtails senate’s powers

Related articles

Recent controversies in Australia over vice-chancellors’ pay, Ramsay Centre funding and the role of academic presses have raised questions about whether university boards have too few – or, perhaps, too many – members from scholarly backgrounds. John Ross chairs the discussion

16 May

Related universities

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Sponsored