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Murdoch University’s ‘aggressive’ student recruitment could hurt other Australian universities

A Murdoch University staff member who would prefer not to be named for legal reasons says the ABC TV 4 Corners program on international students could have a negative impact on other Australian universities’ ability to recruit from growing student markets like India, Pakistan and Nepal.

In May this year ABC's 4 Corners episode 'Cash Cows' exposed the lengths some universities were going to to enrol international students. Academics from Murdoch University appeared on the program, stating that a disproportionate number of students (many from the Punjab region of India) did not have the requisite English or subject matter knowledge to be successful in their courses.

The source said he feared retribution if he spoke out to the media, saying the university had proven itself “to be a particularly litigious bunch”. He said academics regularly had to “modify courses on the fly to accommodate [the students’] lack of background knowledge in the subject areas” and a significant number of overseas students seemed to “have slipped through the net” in gaining entry to courses such as the Masters of IT.

Asked why the university would allow this to happen, the staff member replied: “I think [money] was the primary driver of what was happening at Murdoch”. He went on to say that the university saw huge spikes in student intakes over a short time, doubling or tripling international student intakes for three to four semesters in a row.

The staff member said the university’s immigration risk rating had moved from level two to level three, meaning that the amount of documentation a student must now provide has increased and student visa applications for the university will now be assessed through the Department of Home Affairs, not the university.

He also said that countries were ascribed levels based on a number of factors, with India, Pakistan and Nepal recently being rated as level three risk countries. This is expected to have ramifications for Murdoch University as it will present “more hurdles” for many of its students to be granted entry to courses. However, he also warned that Murdoch’s “aggressive” recruitment of students from the above countries elevated their risk rating and has the potential to hurt other Australian universities, too.

“Murdoch’s behaviour has not only been bad for its own reputation. It’s been bad in that it’s impacted the country’s ability, or the sector’s ability, to recruit from what was a growing market,” he said.

The source’s comments come after 57 distinguished professors published an open letter to Murdoch’s vice-chancellor Professor Eeva Leinonen, stating its court action against Murdoch academic Dr Gerd Schroder-Turk for speaking out about its overseas student recruitment practices is setting “a dangerous precedent for all Australian universities”.

"It is a long-established principle of academic freedom that academics must be able to criticise university governance. This right is especially important where aspects of university governance might compromise the integrity of teaching and research,” the letter said.

"The claim for damages is highly intimidatory to all Australian academics and therefore risks the capacity of Murdoch University and all Australian universities to pursue excellence in research and teaching.

"We urge you to withdraw the claim, to settle any dispute without punitive measures, and to affirm the commitment of Murdoch University to academic freedom as an essential university value."

The Australian Institute of Physics, a coalition of 23 international academics, also issued a statement condemning the university's action.

Academic Dr Gerd Schroder-Turk launched an injunction in the Federal Court in May to prevent the university from removing him from his seat on the university senate and to reinforce his academic freedom of expression.

Last month Murdoch University launched a counter-claim again him for damages and costs. The university argues his claims have damaged the university’s reputation and led to a fall in international student numbers.

However, despite the 'David and Goliath' battle, Schroder-Turk remains “undeterred”, lawyer Josh Bornstein from Maurice Blackburn told the ABC.

"Look, he's very resolute and principled but at the same time … he's keen to let people know that this sort of behaviour by a university is out of bounds and is designed to intimidate and silence not only him but any other academics or staff members of universities," he said.


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