Murdoch University abandons action to silence academic

A Western Australian university that attempted to silence one of its senior academics has been forced to abandon a court case it launched against him.

Murdoch University in Perth tried to remove Associate Professor Gerd Schröder-Turk from his elected position representing academics on the university senate.

It also sued him in the Federal Court after his appearance on a national television programme revealed the university’s poor treatment of international students.

But Murdoch’s legal claim and its threat to remove Schröder-Turk from the senate were withdrawn by the university as part of a legal settlement of the case.

The dispute began in May 2019 when Schröder-Turk, in an interview on national television, commented critically about the university’s practices regarding international students.

He revealed a situation all too common on Australian campuses where universities enrol foreign students at high fees to undertake courses they may be ill-prepared for in terms of their comprehension of English.

After the programme was broadcast, Murdoch University immediately tried to remove Schröder-Turk from its university senate.

The academic challenged the attempt as unlawful in the Federal Court of Australia and the university responding by suing him for millions of dollars in compensation.

Backed down

But, in an embarrassing back-down and before the court case had even started, the university abandoned its legal action and agreed to Schröder-Turk continuing to represent staff on the senate.

The settlement includes both parties abandoning legal action, and importantly, allowing Dr Schröder-Turk to continue to represent staff during discussions in the senate.

The motion to remove him was withdrawn by the university.

The National Tertiary Education Union had supported the academic’s action and described the outcome as “a momentous day for academic freedom”.

Dr Alison Barnes, the union’s national president, said all academics including those elected to university senates had the right to speak publicly about matters that concerned universities.

Barnes said this included criticisms of their own institutions.

Fundamental freedom

“This is fundamental to ensuring that academics are free from the threat of penalty or persecution in the pursuit of truth,” she said.

“The union, its members and the broader community stood with Gerd in a historic campaign to support him and academic freedom,” Barnes said.

Schröder-Turk said he was glad the court proceedings had finished and looked forward to continuing to contribute to the governance of Murdoch University through his membership of the senate.

He also looked forward to contributing to the broader public discussion around governance and international student recruitment practices of public universities.

“I hope that in a few years’ time we can look back at this case as one that has highlighted the substantial benefit of staff representation on university governing boards.

“I hope it empowers the academic and professional staff representatives on governing boards across the country, not just at Murdoch,” he said.