50 professors decry Murdoch action against whistleblower
The academic was concerned that international students were being set up to fail.
The university claims that the remarks caused a sharp drop in its international student enrolments.
The professors, who are all recipients of the Australian Research Council’s Australian Laureate Fellowship, said Murdoch University’s actions “pose a grave risk to academic freedom and set a dangerous precedent”.
The university has sued Dr Gerd Schröder-Turk, an associate professor in mathematics and statistics, for his criticism of its treatment of international students, claiming it has lost millions of dollars in revenue after a 15% fall in international student numbers.
This followed the academic’s participation in a TV programme by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) that exposed the way Murdoch and other universities have become heavily reliant on foreign student fees to bolster their incomes.
The universities have been accused not only of enrolling students with poor English but of also allowing them to graduate.
“We noticed the change of the preparedness of the students in the classroom, and we realised that that level of preparedness is not adequate,” Schröder-Turk said on the programme.
“I have strong concerns about what this means for the integrity of the academic teaching at Murdoch, if not more broadly in Australia,” he said.
Murdoch University said at the time that it “maintains admission standards consistent with national standards for international students, along with English language requirements in line with those across the sector”, according to ABC.net.
But the university now claims widespread publicity about the Schröder-Turk interview has damaged its reputation and that its income from foreign students has fallen as a result of declining enrolments and is seeking compensation.
Schröder-Turk, a senior lecturer in mathematics and statistics, was only one of several academics who spoke out on the Four Corners’ programme, claiming that Murdoch and other Australian universities were admitting students who did not meet minimum English-language standards or who had not taken a language-proficiency test.
The fact that Schröder-Turk expressed a view shared by probably most other Australian academics with foreign students in their classes did not seem to matter.
He is now seeking an injunction to stop the university from taking disciplinary action against him. In his statement of claim under the Fair Work Act, he alleged that he learned two days after the broadcast that a resolution was to be proposed to remove him from a position he holds at the university, because of what he said on the programme, ABC.net reported.
The university counter-alleges that he breached fiduciary duties by disclosing information to journalists and that international student enrolments are down as a result of his criticism, and that its reputation has been damaged, hence the lawsuit.
Murdoch University, however, has been publicly accused of enrolling foreign students lacking the English language skills needed for university study at the same time as the number of students failing their courses has been rising.
The 50 professors wrote to the university’s vice-chancellor, Eeva Leinonen, urging her to drop the university’s pursuit of damages against Schröder-Turk.
They say that if Murdoch University wins, it will strongly discourage other academics from coming forward and “blowing the whistle on Australia’s international student scandal”.
However, if Murdoch loses, it could empower academics to speak out, increasing pressure on universities and policy-makers to lift entry and teaching standards.
They argue that the findings by the court could rewrite the application and acceptance rules for universities around the country and affect tens of thousands of students.
This could also directly affect the right of students to take their own legal action.
The letter follows public statements condemning the university’s actions from the Australian Institute of Physics and a coalition of 23 international academics.
In 2018 Murdoch had around 15,000 domestic students and 2,863 overseas students on temporary entry visas, according to federal government figures.