Murdoch University seeks to silence whistleblowing academic

Gerd Schroeder-Turk

Murdoch University is facing widespread criticism for its decision to seek potentially millions in compensation by suing one of its employees, associate professor Gerd Schroeder-Turk. Murdoch has also attempted to remove him from his elected position on the university’s senate.

The university took this unprecedented step after Schroeder-Turk publicly spoke out about the large number of international students being allowed to enrol at Murdoch despite failing to meet required academic standards.

Schroeder-Turk raised his concerns about the welfare of the students with the university more than a year ago and lodged a formal complaint with the chancellor. Other Murdoch academics, including senior mathematics lecturer and academic misconduct investigator Dr Duncan Farrow and School of Engineering head of discipline and IT professor Graeme Hocking, also raised the issue with management.

However, an internal investigation by the university concluded there was no wrongdoing.

In May, an ABC Four Corners investigation brought the issue to light. The three academics expressed their concerns in the program and evidence was presented indicating this was a widespread practice in the sector.

Murdoch University management declined to be interviewed and instead sent Four Corners a general statement with no admission of wrongdoing.

Insufficient public funding and business-oriented management models have led to universities adopting strategies that rarely put the creation and dissemination of knowledge above profit. In this climate, universities make big efforts to attract and enrol large numbers of international students because of the revenue they generate.

Murdoch University is alleged to have enrolled students whose English language and academic competence fall short of the institution’s advertised standard to “remain competitive [with] other unis,” as an unnamed Murdoch admissions staff put it to Four Corners.

The academics’ concerns have to do with the ethics of accepting students based solely on their ability to pay, while knowing that they have little chance of academic success.

The university is now claiming that Schroeder-Turk’s whistleblowing has led to an almost 15% drop in international student enrolments — and with it a fall in income.

The university’s punitive and intimidatory legal action has been widely condemned as an attack on academic freedom of speech and a coercive measure designed to silence criticism of management.

National Tertiary Education Union president Alison Barnes said: “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.”

Schroeder-Turk has received broad support from academics, students and the public. More than a thousand letters of support for the associate professor have been sent to the university. Additionally, an #IStandWithGerd online petition calling on the institution to drop the lawsuit has gathered more than 6400 signatures.

[For more information on the campaign visit nteu.org.au/istandwithgerd.]

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