Bullying and harassment rife at state’s universities

A survey of staff at South Australia’s three major universities has uncovered widespread bullying and harassment, with managers accused of being more concerned with their institution’s reputation than academic and general staff well-being.

Conducted by the state’s Independent Commissioner Against Corruption or ICAC, the survey found that academic and general staff at the three institutions believed their managers rated institutional reputation more important than their concerns about falling admission and assessment standards for ‘lucrative’ foreign students.

The ICAC survey obtained responses from more than 3,000 staff at the three universities.

One in five said that their university did not have adequate protections for those reporting misconduct and more than 10% believed their organisation actively discouraged reporting.

Among those surveyed, women were more likely to agree that they felt intimidated to report misconduct than men.

Although the findings relate directly to the situation in South Australian universities, they are almost certainly equally applicable to what is occurring in universities in the other states and territories.

The findings

The state Independent Commissioner Against Corruption, Ann Vanstone, said that while the survey was not a “precise depiction of the state of affairs in South Australia”, it showed “areas of weakness, tension and risk that could provide opportunities for corruption” within the university sector.

“I hope the insights and observations offered in this report will stimulate each university to review its operations, policies, procedures and reporting cultures,” Vanstone said.

“Listening to employees about their experiences of improper conduct, and taking action upon reports and complaints of poor conduct or poor systems, are the surest methods of maintaining and improving the integrity of any agency.”

Almost 100 staff made comments on the issues they faced reporting misconduct within their university, with 43 describing their workplace as having a “poor reporting culture”.

“Fundamentally it’s a ‘don’t make waves’ if you want to keep your job attitude,” one respondent said.

Another commented that people were reticent to report inappropriate behaviour by administrators because “nothing ever happens and the whistle-blower becomes a victim”.

“I was touched inappropriately by an academic,” one woman reported, the ICAC report states. “I raised it with [a senior staff member] but was told not to report it as it would be ‘an awful process to go through’ and the university would protect the academic and the university’s reputation over me.”

Other respondents claimed that complaints were dealt with by stigmatising staff who made them.

“Staff who report misconduct are treated as if they require counselling, are somewhat deranged, and are disbelieved. The approach is to send staff for counselling and resilience training,” one respondent said.

Almost one in five of those responding to the survey said they knew someone who had suffered negative consequences for reporting misconduct.

“Reporting anything makes you a victim forever, and nothing will change that. If you report anything, you become a very strong focus of attention and everything in your life is turned over… reporting management to senior staff is deadly.”

Bullying and harassment

A majority of those responding to the survey said they had encountered bullying and-or harassment at their university, with permanent staff and women more likely to experience this.

Bullying and harassment was also the most frequently cited form of inappropriate conduct, with 202 respondents writing to ICAC about their experiences.

“In the past three years a culture of bullying has developed among the senior executive of the university,” one response read.

“Bullying is the norm. Everyone knows that there will be a massive personal cost and victimisation if issues are raised,” was another comment.

Other respondents said they believed human resource departments selectively applied disciplinary procedures related to bullying depending on which staff members were involved.

“HR just covered up the issues because the bully was bringing a lot of money into the university,” one person wrote.

“University HR departments do not behave in a manner that supports the staff within the organisation. HR help senior management get away with inappropriate behaviour,” another critic wrote.

International students

The ICAC report outlined staff concerns relating to a perceived over-reliance by universities on the income generated from international students, and the pressure placed on academics to enrol and pass them during times when tests were conducted.

More than 100 staff members commented on the academic quality of the foreign students being enrolled, with 61 saying poor English skills were a critical factor in poor academic performance.

“International students are accepted with well below the required English language proficiency in order to maintain income,” one staff member said.

“But senior management refuse to engage with these issues and just accuse academics of being bad teachers when they raise it.”

Another academic said it was made abundantly clear that entry requirements were not important: “We just needed to obtain higher enrolment figures.”

“International student fees seem to trump all standards in enrolment, assessment and grades. Lower and lower grades are required to ‘pass’, such as 40% for a course,” said another respondent.