Murdoch University (Murdoch) is suing Associate Professor Gerd Schröder-Turk for damages over comments he made on a Four Corners program concerning the University’s ethical standards of international student recruitment, the welfare of international students and academic integrity. Murdoch claims that investigations by tertiary regulators, spurred by the Four Corners episode, as well as a decline in international student enrolment, has cost the University millions of dollars in lost revenue.
Dr Schröder-Turk, who also sits on the Senate as an elected staff representative, was one of three Murdoch academics who appeared on the program in May. The program revealed that over two years, the University’s lucrative international student recruitment strategy had helped turn Murdoch’s five million dollar deficit into a fifteen million dollar surplus.
“Admitting students who don’t have the right qualifications, or prerequisites, or correct language capabilities is setting them up for failure,” Schröder-Turk told Four Corners.
Following the broadcast, Murdoch Chancellor David Flanagan refused to guarantee the jobs of staff who had spoken out on the program when questioned about it on ABC Radio Drive. On Four Corners, Schröder-Turk alleged he previously lodged a detailed complaint to Flanagan in an attempt to deal with the matter internally before he ultimately ended up going public.
Schröder-Turk also alleges that at a Senate meeting two days after the broadcast he was informed that a resolution would be put forward to remove him from his elected position on the governing body as a result of his public statements.
Schröder-Turk proceeded by launching action under Western Australia’s whistleblower protection laws, alleging that Murdoch had carried out “detrimental action against the applicant after he made an appropriate disclosure of public interest information”.
Murdoch’s counterclaim alleges Schröder-Turk broke his fiduciary duties in disclosing information to journalists, as well as causing reputational damage to the University because of media reports. Court records show Murdoch pressing for the names of journalists he spoke to and the dates when these conversations occurred.
The Secretary of the National Tertiary Education Union’s (NTEU) WA Division, Dr Jonathan Hallett, said: “In a time when the world knows the value of whistleblowers, it is an outrage that a public university that is meant to be a bastion of free speech would seek to punish the elected voice of the academic staff.”
This is not the first time Murdoch University is attempting to stifle staff speech by pursuing legal action. Last year the University unsuccessfully took the NTEU to the Supreme Court of WA in an attempt to get an article from the Union’s journal, Advocate, removed. The article, titled ‘Trouble at Murdoch again’, covered many of the concerns raised in the Four Corners investigation.
With current attacks on whistleblowers such as Richard Boyle, David McBride, former spy Witness K, and lawyer Bernard Collaery, the Shröeder-Turk v Murdoch University case comes at a time of both precarious press freedom and precarious university funding in Australia.