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University staff under investigation for financial misconduct

Staff in the embattled student services and administration department are under investigation for alleged expenses rorts.

Cake, champagne and expensive things: artist's impression of the kind of spending under investigation. Source: Fairfax Media, Modified: Andrew Rickert Cake, champagne and expensive things: artist's impression of the kind of spending under investigation. Source: Fairfax Media, Modified: Andrew Rickert

University of Sydney staff are under investigation for financial misconduct, the Sydney Morning Herald reported last night.

The 21 staff are employed in the University’s embattled student services and administration department, which oversees the controversial centralisation of student services.

The Herald reports an ongoing audit has found extreme entertainment spending within the department. The bill, running up to “tens of thousands of dollars”, includes alcohol, stationery, coffees and “16 birthday cakes”, according to one employee.

A University spokeswoman confirmed to Honi that misconduct investigations were going ahead: “At this stage,no formal findings of misconduct have been made against any of the staff members being questioned and the process is ongoing.”

One staff member involved told the Herald that these allegations were “minor misdemeanours at worst”. They also said that staff had not been told what the”“charges” against them were, complaining this area of University policy was unclear. “It was about whether taking a student out for a coffee was technically a meeting or entertainment.”

Expenses claims are, in part, regulated by the University’s Non-Allowable Expenses Procedure. Broadly, the University will pay for reasonable business expenses and not for personal expenses. The line between these categories is sometimes thin: entertainment expenses cannot be claimed for personal use, which extends, for example, to staff functions. But entertainment expenses can be claimed when associated with work—for instance, for awards dinners.

Honi sought clarification on the exact conduct involved and on the procedure for the investigation. The university spokeswoman could give no insight other than that, under the University’s enterprise agreement, “staff are given an opportunity to respond to an allegation before a finding is made.”  

The investigation comes after a series of shock resignations from the student services and administration department late last year. September saw the departure of Executive Director of Global Student Recruitment and Mobility, Michelle Carlin.  And in October, the department’s chief, former Deputy Vice Chancellor (Registrar) Tyrone Carlin, left his role to return to teaching and research. Though it might be tempting to imagine student services run as a family fiefdom, the two Carlins are unrelated.  

While there is no suggestion the resignations are linked with the current investigation, they speak to continuing concerns over the accountability of student services employees. Notably, an Australian Financial Review report last year alleged that Dr Carlin breached his University employment contract by taking on outside work for the Certified Practising Accounts, an organisation of which he was President.

Under the University’s Outside Earnings of Academic Staff Policy, staff are limited to spending only 20 per cent of the working week on non-University jobs. The AFR reported that, based on CPA estimates, Dr Carlin was working at least 3.5 days a week in his CPA presidential role, over half his hours. Dr Carlin also claimed his CPA earnings were substantially lower than the $400 000 alleged by the AFR. He would not, however, confirm the real figure, and stood down soon from the CPA after the AFR investigation.

Despite these ongoing concerns with the student services department, key figures are quick to dismiss the current investigations.  In comment given to the Herald, Ms Carlin, who is no longer associated with the department, defended her former colleagues: “I’m absolutely confident that this high achieving team have nothing to worry about”

As far as achievements go, the biggest to come out of the student services and administration department in recent years has been the creation of a centralised student services regime. The initiative, spearheaded by Dr Carlin, has replaced an older system under which each faculty delivered administrative support separately. Now, a single team of staff, working from a single Student Centre and hotline, manage all student inquiries—on issues as disparate as fee payment and degree progression. The achievement has not been uncontroversial : centralisation has created bottlenecks and dramatically increased the number of unsuccessful special considerations applications.

There is no indication when the investigation will be finalised.

More to come