The Guardian August 15, 2001


The Steele case:
Win for unionisation and university independence

by Peter Mac

Sacked lecturer, microbiologist Dr Ted Steele, has won a case of wrongful 
dismissal against his employer, Wollongong University. The case has major 
implications for the future administration of Australian universities, and 
for tertiary education in general.

In February this year Dr Steele was dismissed for stating that he had been 
pressured to unjustifiably upgrade student marks. Rather than investigate 
the allegation with a view to stamping out such practices, he was sacked on 
the spot. The head of Dr Steele's department said he had caused "very real 
damage to the reputation and good name of your work colleagues and your 
employer."

The result caused an academic furore, with universities in Britain, Canada, 
the United States and South Africa imposing boycotts on Wollongong 
University.

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) took Steele's case to the 
Federal Court. Last week, after a bruising seven-month hearing, the Court 
ruled that the University had breached the university staff's enterprise 
bargaining agreement, which requires a special disciplinary hearing before 
dismissal proceedings take place.

The NTEU is demanding that Dr Steele be reinstated. This is by no means the 
end of the matter, however. The Court decision does not, in fact, reinstate 
Dr Steele, nor does it compensate him for loss of earnings or other 
damages, which must be sought through further legal action.

Under the current enterprise agreement the University authorities would be 
technically within their rights to reinstate Dr Steele and then institute 
formal dismissal proceedings against him. However, the University is now 
under intense pressure to put its house in order, rather than to make 
another blatant attempt to muzzle a whistle-blower.

The case has thrown a spotlight on a number of major issues regarding 
Australia's tertiary education system.

Firstly, the matter highlights the growing corruption of the system, and 
the desperation of authorities, and the increasing economic hardship 
imposed by federal government policies. This is now manifest in 
overcrowding and inadequate maintenance of facilities.

Australian university authorities have voiced increasing alarm over the 
effects of the Howard Government's funding cuts. Universities are being 
forced to raise their own funding, part of which they derive from students 
who pay full tuition costs.

There are increasing pressures for universities to offer competitive 
enticements to enrol these students. Universities have reduced examinations 
in favour of written submissions; and stories of "soft" markings in favour 
of certain substandard students are rife.

Plagiarism is now also emerging as evidence of this corruption, and indeed 
seems to be reaching plague proportions. Ads for "essays" are now displayed 
openly on uni notice boards.

The Steele case has revealed an imminent danger to academic independence, 
and is vitally important in shoring up a possible major breach in 
Australia's collective academic integrity.

In March, the University of NSW launched a formal enquiry into soft marking 
and falling academic standards, and other universities have voiced their 
concern over this academic cancer.

And last but not least, the matter has once again illustrated the crucial 
importance of university staff joining their union, taking part in union 
activity, and sticking together to defend their rights and academic 
standards.

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