Mudoch University’s decision on January 13 to drop its lawsuit against Associate Professor Gerd Schröder-Turk is a partial victory for him, academic freedoms and whistle blowing.
National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) general secretary Matthew McGowan said it was “patently absurd” for a university to sue a staff member for millions of dollars in damages. “University staff not only have the right, but also an obligation to the public to speak out about matters of importance to higher education, including to criticise their employers when necessary.”
Murdoch University took action against Schröder-Turk after he appeared on the ABC’s Four Corners program last May. He, along with other Murdoch University academics, had blown the whistle on the university admitting a large number of international students, despite them failing to meet academic standards.
This move was widely believed to be — and later shown to be — a means to cover up the university’s budget black hole. This led to multiple problematic flow-on effects, one of which was the large number of students in particular cohorts who were accused of academic misconduct.
In 2018 several university departments, as well as the student Guild, relayed their concern about the university’s international student recruitment practices. Schröder-Turk had even lodged a formal complaint with the chancellor, based on his concern for the students’ welfare. When these fell on deaf ears, Schroder-Turk blew the whistle on the alleged malpractice.
The university’s first response was to remove Schröder-Turk from the University Senate. He responded with a lawsuit against his unjust removal and the university lodged a counter claim alleging that Schröder-Turk had acted “against the best interest of the University”. It argued that Schröder-Turk’s whistleblowing on the Four Corners program had led to a 15% drop in the enrolment of international students.
Academics and professional associations across the world condemned the university for its actions. The NTEU, together with students, started a campaign to force the university to drop its lawsuit. A petition to reinstate Schröder-Turk was signed by more than 30,000 people.
NTEU members, students and supporters of free speech attended a University Town Hall meeting, organised by the Vice Chancellor on December 6, and repeatedly questioned her about the matter. Management abruptly ended the meeting when the Vice Chancellor refused to comment.
Ironically, the same meeting was informed that a research team, which included Schröder-Turk, had been selected to receive more than $1 million from the Australian Research Council as part of its competitive Discovery Projects scheme. Embarrassingly, the university was suing one of its own professors.
It had been speculated that the university’s counter claim was a face-saving measure because its case, overall, looked shaky. This was further supported by the Department of Home Affairs that said Schröder-Turk’s appearance on the Four Corners program did not affect its scrutiny of student visas.