University staff reveal bullying, international student concerns in ICAC survey

An ICAC survey conducted among staff at Adelaide’s three major universities has revealed widespread concerns about bullying and harassment, managers prioritising institutional reputation over addressing problems, and pre-pandemic admission and assessment standards for lucrative international students.

Dec 03, 2020, updated Dec 03, 2020
Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Independent Commissioner Against Corruption Ann Vanstone QC this morning released the ICAC University Integrity Survey.

It ran from March 10 to April 3 this year, compiling responses from 3240 staff working across the University of Adelaide (1364 respondents), the University of South Australia (1173) and Flinders University (695).

The survey found that 35.4 per cent of respondents believe their employer prioritises the university’s reputation over addressing complaints.

Regarding protection of whistle-blowers, 20.6 per cent said that their university did not have adequate protections for those who report misconduct, while more than 10 per cent believed their organisation discouraged reporting.

Women were more likely to agree (40.4 per cent) that they feel intimidated to report misconduct than men (32.4 per cent).

Vanstone said that while the survey was not a “precise depiction of the state of affairs”, it showed “areas of weakness, tension and risk that could provide opportunities for corruption” within SA’s 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.”

Ninety-three staff members made qualitative comments on issues they faced reporting misconduct within the 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.

“People are reticent to report inappropriate conduct because nothing ever happens and the ‘whistle-blower becomes a victim’,” another respondent said, while another reported being advised against lodging a sexual harassment complaint.

“I was touched inappropriately by an academic. I raised it with [redacted] and was told not to report it as it would be an awful process to go through and [redacted] will protect the Academic and the University’s reputation over me,” the ICAC report said.

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

“Staff reporting 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 told the survey.

Seventeen per cent of respondents said they knew someone who had suffered negative consequences for reporting misconduct, with one  writing: “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 so that anything that can possibly be wrong may be found out and used against you, including something trivial…reporting management senior staff is deadly.”

However, the report also found that 75.1 per cent of respondents were willing to report problems internally, with 59 per cent willing to report problem to ICAC or the Office for Public Integrity.

Bullying and harassment within Adelaide’s universities

Almost two thirds (63.1 per cent) of respondents said they had encountered bullying and/or harassment at their university, with permanent staff and women more likely to experience this.

A further 37.7 percent said they had witnessed nepotism and favouritism in their workplace.

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,” another response read.

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.

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“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 person wrote.

Other forms of inappropriate conduct listed by respondents include inappropriate staff recruitment; improper influence or practice involving student enrolment, student assessment and grading; conflicts of interests and inappropriate conduct in research of scholarly practice.

Over reliance on international enrolments and pressure to pass students

ICAC’s report also outlined staff concerns related to a perceived over-reliance on international students, and pressure to enrol and pass them.

More than 100 staff members commented on the academic quality of students being accepted, 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. The senior management refuse to engage with these issues and just accuse academics of being bad teachers when they raise it,” one staff member said.

“It was made abundantly clear entry requirements weren’t important, we just needed to obtain higher enrolment figures,” said another, while another wrote: “International student fees seem to trump all standards in enrolment, assessment and grades. Lower and lower grades are required to ‘pass’ (eg 40 per cent for a course), and serious misconduct in assessment is often ignored by senior managers as just being ‘too hard’ to deal with.”

UniSA Vice Chancellor Professor David Lloyd said the university welcomed the findings from the ICAC report.

“While some of the contents of the aggregate report are deeply concerning and will warrant further examination, UniSA is waiting for our own institutional report and data to assess the feedback in our specific context,” Prof Lloyd said.

“We are committed to sharing that information with our staff and will openly interrogate the effectiveness of existing processes to assure integrity in our operations.

“I want to emphasise that UniSA is committed to supporting staff who bring forward any matter of concern and that we rigorously apply all relevant policies and protocols.”

Flinders University President and Vice Chancellor Professor Colin Stirling also welcomed the report.

“While the report raises a number of important matters, it was nonetheless pleasing to see that the majority of university sector staff reported that they would be willing to raise such matters through the appropriate channels,” Prof Stirling said.

“At Flinders University, integrity is a core value and any suspected lapse would always be taken very seriously.

“I strongly encourage Flinders University staff and students to always report any concerns they have regarding such matters and can confirm that the University will always investigate thoroughly and take action as required.”

Adelaide University interim Vice Chancellor Professor Mike Brooks – who replaced disgraced former Adelaide University VC Peter Rathjen, who resigned earlier this year after being the focus of an ICAC investigation into misconduct – said the report gave the institution a “further opportunity to identify improvements to our culture, behaviours and processes”.

“The survey results have highlighted a number of areas of concern to staff across all three universities, including bullying and harassment, reporting processes and procedures, and academic standards,” Professor Brooks said.

“Inappropriate conduct of the kind outlined in the survey findings is unacceptable and should not be tolerated, whether in a university, another workplace, or the wider community.

“I commit the University to following this guidance of the Commissioner. The integrity and accountability of our University must be foremost in our minds. I am determined that the University will become a safer and more respectful place to work and study.”

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