Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 2 December 2020

Bullying, grade tampering and bad English rife at SA universities

Robert Bolton

Nearly 30 per cent of staff at the three universities in South Australia say they have been bullied or harassed and 18 per cent allege nepotism in recruitment and promotion, according to a report by the state's Independent Commissioner Against Corruption.

There are widespread concerns about rules being bent to help foreign students get into university, according to the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption.

The ICAC's University Integrity Survey 2020 – which covers the University of Adelaide, the University of South Australia and Flinders University  revealed widespread concerns about rules being bent to help foreign students get into university and pass their exams.

A staff member from one of the universities said international students were enrolled "ostensibly having demonstrated adequate English standards but when they arrived they are unable to speak functional English".

The report released on Thursday was commissioned in March just before allegations were made to ICAC about inappropriate behaviour towards two women by the former vice-chancellor of the University of Adelaide, Peter Rathjen, who later resigned.

More than 3200 staff took part in the survey, according to Commissioner Ann Vanstone, QC, and "numerous respondents implied that management allowed inappropriate conduct to occur or had failed to address such conduct".

One staffer named an academic at one of the universities and said "he is a bully and inappropriate with women but they (the management) have refused to do anything. No one has the backbone, so others keep suffering", the report said.

Another said: "I was absolutely powerless, and frightened. I had to send an email to [redacted] to ask that he stop touching me or my clothing. He’s tried to (touch) me multiple times, and even when I physically turned my body away he continued. It was disgusting."

Apart from allegations of nepotism the commissioner said there were numerous reports of poor administration.

Fifteen per cent reported inappropriate practices in recruitment and promotion, 11 per cent said they were pressured over student grades and 7 per cent said they were pressured over enrolling.

The biggest number of complaints related to accepting international students who could not speak English.

One staff member said 40 per cent of a third-year class "could not write coherently or barely at a grade-9 level".

Another alleged there was "gross over-enrolment in courses and programs that attract higher fee-paying students".

Staff at all three universities also reported pressure to pass students who should have been failed. In one instance a pass mark was set at 50 per cent but then lowered to 48 per cent and then 46 per cent "to ensure that most students could pass".

"There is considerable pressure placed upon us to grade students favourably both to maintain our reputation as an institution to attract future income from students," the staffer said.

Thirty-three employees provided examples of grades being overwritten to pass students despite the original grade they received. 

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