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Bullying, inflating grades, nepotism: Flinders, UniSA staff unload to ICAC

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Bullying and harassment are commonplace, staff are pressured to inflate grades, breaches of enterprise agreements are “routine”, and nepotism is “rife” at both the University of South Australia and Flinders University, according to the results of the last two integrity surveys published this week.

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The two reports – which informed ICAC’s overall University Integrity Survey released earlier this month – compiled responses from 1173 UniSA and 695 Flinders staff members from March to April this year to determine the “attitudes and experiences” of employees regarding corruption and inappropriate conduct at their respective workplaces.

Flinders and UniSA disseminated the reports in emails to staff over the past seven days, following on from Adelaide University who made their institution’s report public last Wednesday, December 16 – detailing similar concerns about a workplace culture of “veiled terror” where bullying and harassment are common.

Nearly a third of respondents from Flinders and more than 25 per cent from UniSA said they had encountered bullying and harassment at their university.

“I can’t even list the amount of examples of corruption, bullying, nepotism and unethical practices that occur at Flinders University,” one respondent said.

Another Flinders staff member said “a culture of bullying has developed among the senior Executive of the University”, which was most evident during a university restructure when “there were widespread accounts of being bullied by Executive Deans and other senior managers”.

At UniSA, one respondent said they were “aware of a colleague being bullied by another academic colleague”, but the person remained undisciplined by the university despite it being “common knowledge that they often claim credit for others work”.

The reports also raise concern with internal reporting protocols, with almost 40 per cent of staff from Flinders and 28.9 per cent from UniSA agreeing their organisation “places reputation over addressing the problem”.

Less than half of respondents at both universities were confident their organisation would take action if they reported a problem, even though a majority of staff members agreed they would be willing to report misconduct internally.

Dissatisfaction was more prevalent among those who did report misconduct, with 69 per cent from Flinders and 48 per cent from UniSA dissatisfied with the internal reporting process. A further 62 per cent of complainants from Flinders and 48.5 per cent from UniSA believed their organisation did not take their report seriously.

One respondent from UniSA said “the threat of termination due to contravening organisation reputation is a cultural issue for reporting”.

“The culture of supporting management practices/decisions/policies (explicit or implied) carries likelihood of negative consequences from raising concerns of inappropriate conduct with line managers.”

Others at UniSA reported instances where staff were “made to leave after reporting inappropriate behaviour”, and a whistleblower “ended up losing her academic career” for reporting misconduct.

Staff at Flinders expressed concern about bullying tactics used by management to cover up contract violations, with one respondent claiming “breaching the enterprise agreement is routine, and management uses fear to prevent staff challenging this state of affairs”.

Others claim leave packages were leveraged in exchange for staff silence.

“When given separation packages to leave, these staff have had to agree not to express any dissatisfaction with the process and have been instructed to say only that they are happy with the outcome,” one Flinders staff member said.

“Failure to comply with this directive means they would have their leaving packages stripped.

“These are not actions of a fair, honest and defensible management ethos.”

‘Jobs for the boys’ and pressure to pass failing students

Nepotism was the second most common form of corruption reported at both universities, with 19 per cent of Flinders respondents and 15.6 per cent of UniSA staff having encountered the practice during their employment.

Fifty-three staff members from UniSA outlined specific instances of “favouritism” within their organisation, with one respondent describing an “atmosphere of nepotism” with “some individuals receiving more opportunity to progress than others”, while another respondent recalled hiring decisions where “staff without higher degrees (Masters, PhD) have been appointed to positions for which other applicants with these qualifications have been overlooked”.

Thirty-four staff members from Flinders outlined their concerns with favouritism in the workplace, with one respondent saying “the nepotism, favouritism and ‘jobs for the boys’ is quite rife”, and another saying they witnessed “family members [being] given positions, even though they are not experienced in the position they have applied for”.

The survey also highlights significant concerns about grading standards and pressure to enrol unqualified international students for economic purposes, with “inappropriate practice, pressure or influence in regards to student assessment” the fourth most common form of corruption/misconduct cited by respondents at both universities.

One UniSA staff member claims they saw an incident “all grades were inflated in a course because there was a high failure rate … around 60-70 per cent of marks were inflated to a pass level”.

“In practice the university failed to ensure the teaching was adequate which it was not – they resolved it through inflating grades.”

At Flinders, one respondent claimed “staff [are] put under pressure to maintain enrolment by inflating grades” and “staff who don’t maintain enrolments are under threat of dismissal”.

One employee said they “personally witnessed” pressure being placed on staff to pass international students that had “overtly failed” assessment tasks, while another said “Flinders continues to contravene measures of quality imposed by the professional association and will not do anything to limit the number of international students as they are a major source of revenue.”

More than 12 per cent of all respondents from Flinders said they had encountered inappropriate pressure or influence related to grading students.

More than 675,000 international students were enrolled in Australian universities this year, with education-related travel services Australia’s fourth largest export sector in 2019.

Prior to the COIVD-19 pandemic, there were more than 38,000 international students studying in South Australia’s higher education sector.

Research integrity under fire as universities look to respond

The reports also bring into question the integrity of research processes and grant allocation at the two universities.

At UniSA, more than five per cent of respondents had witnessed academic or teaching staff engage in “corruption or inappropriate conduct in research/scholarly practice”, with 36 staff members raising concerns about financial misconduct. 

One respondent pointed to “extreme examples of funding being deliberately directed to support other programs and not used appropriately to support the intended research”, while others described circular processes where grant applicants sit on grant boards or academics engage in “perfectly legal gaming” of the system by “collud[ing] to have artificially high research qualifications”.

Similarly, 4.3 per cent at Flinders said they had witnessed corruption or inappropriate conduct in research, with one staff member criticising the university for not implementing “clear cut grants management processes”, which has resulted in the “mismanagement” of funds with academics under-delivering on contracted obligations or “reporting progress that has not actually occurred”.

Flinders University Vice Chancellor Professor Colin Stirling said in an email to all staff last Friday, December 18, that the university “need[s] to do better in the ways in which we handle complaints and in how we communicate outcomes in a timely fashion”.

“I will work with my senior leadership team to ensure that we find ways to improve our processes while also ensuring that we treat all complainants and respondents both fairly and respectfully,” Prof Stirling said.

“The report also raises a number of specific concerns relating to different aspects of our activities and the Senior Executive Team will examine the report carefully and consider how best to improve systems and processes in the future.”

Stirling also said he was “disappointed” that bullying and harassment were the main themes in the report, and “all allegations of such behaviour will be taken very seriously”.

UniSA Vice Chancellor Professor David Lloyd said his organisation’s report “contains survey feedback and sentiment, both positive and negative, on a range of our university’s practices and operations”, and that UniSA would “officially review, analyse, discuss and reflect on the document” in the new year.

Responding to the initial ICAC report, Professor Lloyd said the university will “openly interrogate the effectiveness of existing processes to assure integrity in our operations”, and “is committed to supporting staff who bring forward any matter of concern”.

Adelaide University interim Vice Chancellor Professor Mike Brooks disseminated his institution’s report to staff last week, saying it made for “uncomfortable and challenging reading”, but he was “firmly committed to improving the integrity and accountability” of the 140-year institution.

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