How would you react if you were falsely accused of forgery, prevented from enrolling in your courses based on these allegations and then told that you are unable to challenge them?
NUSA is representing a domestic student who NUSA believes has been discriminated against by the University of Newcastle with allegations such as these. This student has been unable to enrol in courses, subsequently losing a year of his education. All levels of the University have failed to resolve the issue.
NUSA believes the student has been discriminated against at every level within the University. In NUSA’s submissions to the University and external agencies, we have submitted that alleging forgery with no evidence constitutes Criminal Defamation.
NUSA has taken the case to the Australian Human Rights Commission and NSW Ombudsman.
The student undertook a placement in April-May earlier this year for a semester one course. He completed the placement and waited for his semester one marks. In early July, he received an official communication from his lecturer alleging that the student had been:
- involved in forgery
- coercing hospital staff to falsely sign placement documents
- coercing hospital staff to sign blank placement documents
- did not follow directions by not having all placement documents co-signed
The lecturer provided NO evidence to substantiate these allegations, but stated that he had been informed by a hospital staff member of this behaviour. It subsequently transpired that there was NO evidence for these allegations. It took under 24 hours for NUSA to contact the Hospital and gain a confirmation that the signatures were valid on the placement documents.
The student responded promptly and denying any such behaviour pointed out that:
- no evidence had been presented
- the hospital staff are professionals and would not sign blank forms
- the hospital staff are qualified to sign the documents, there is no legal requirement for them to be signed by two staff. In addition, no other student had to have documents co-signed.
Accusation of Student Academic Misconduct and Appeal Against a Final Grade
The lecturer then referred his allegations to the Student Academic Conduct Officer (SACO), whose role is described under the Student Misconduct Rule. The SACO informed the student that the following two allegations had been referred to her:
1. You failed to follow directions of a Clinical Supervisor as directed by the Course Co-ordinator, primarily relating to the Mid- and Final Placement Reports, but also no material was co-signed as requested; and
2. That you potentially falsified signatures on Clinical Competency Skills Reports.
Just prior to receiving the formal letter from SACO, the student was informed in an email that,
“Until the matter is resolved, you will not be able to enrol in semester 2 courses.”
SACO informed the student that the first allegation fell outside academic misconduct and so the student’s lecturer would be able to finalise his grade.
The student was awarded a fail grade (FF) and upon requesting clarification was informed that he had received no marks for his placement documents because they had not been co-signed. The student made a formal appeal using the appeal against a final grade procedure, on the basis that there was no stipulation that the placement documents must be co-signed and no other student had to gain co-signatures.
The student informed us that they now met with the Dean of Students (Dr. Jennifer Allen) to discuss the issue. The student informed NUSA* that the Dean of Students told the student that the lecturer had informed her that he had no written evidence from the Hospital to support the allegations. In addition, the student informed NUSA that the Dean of Students told the student that the only thing he could challenge was the requests for him to co-sign documents, as this was not stipulated in the course outline. This would mean that the student could not challenge allegations that he had forged documents and coerced others into signing documents. *The Dean of Students disputes this account of the meeting.
The student then received a response on the second allegation that SACO was looking at. The Pro Vice-Chancellor (Faculty Health) stated that the allegation was found to be not proven.
Then the student received a decision on his appeal of his final grade. The Faculty Progress and Appeals Committee upheld the appeal but decided that he had not undertaken enough placement and must complete an extra day. The lecturer now jumped in and wrote an email to the student in which he suggested that the student undertake a whole extra week.
At this point, NUSA took on the student’s case formally and began preparing a submission. After the student received an email from the school informing him that he must contact the University to arrange the week of placement or else he would fail, NUSA sent an appeal on the Appeal Against a Final Grade to the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Kevin McConkey. It took Prof. McConkey twenty-six (26) days to respond, and he actually managed to respond three days after he left the University.
In our document, we requested that the lecturer be immediately removed from the student, as his actions were inappropriate.
We pointed out that as the Faculty Progress and Appeals Committee had upheld the appeal, the student’s grade should be released. His lecturer had informed the student that he was not being awarded the grade because the documents were not co-signed – he did not say it was because he had not completed enough placement.
We pointed out that the Faculty Progress and Appeals Committee had essentially placed a new allegation at the student’s door without providing him the opportunity to defend himself. We argued that the Faculty Progress and Appeals Committee is essentially a reviews committee and they are NOT the forum for new allegations and subsequent decisions.
In his response, Prof. McConkey determined that the student:
- “must comply with the requirements of the School of Health Sciences” to complete the placement
- that the lecturer would remain the student’s contact
- and that the Faculty Progress and Appeal Committee has the power to:
“grant a student the opportunity for an “alternative/supplementary assessment” when extenuating circumstances have prevented earlier consideration under the provisions of the Adverse Circumstances Affecting Assessment Items Policy and its supporting Procedure. The Faculty Progress and Appeals Committee acted appropriately in its deliberations.”
Vice-Chancellor: Prof. Caroline McMillen
NUSA was not impressed by the DVC’s response and so we escalated the matter to the Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Caroline McMillen.
On 29th October, NUSA sent a submission on the entirety of the student’s case, pointing out where we believed laws, policies and codes had been breached. We requested her immediate intervention, that the student receive his grade and that the lecturer and Dean of Students lose their employment. We also requested thorough investigations into all aspects of this case as we believe the system has failed.
On 2nd November, NUSA sent a further correspondence to the Vice-Chancellor in which we pointed out that the student had completed 200 hours of placement, as per the stipulations of the course outline. Thus, we insisted on the student being awarded his final grade for this course.
NUSA has received no response from the Vice-Chancellor to either our submission or subsequent letter. We have received a response from the then Acting Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic), Prof. Val Robertson concerning our subsequent letter. Prof. Robertson informed us that Prof. McConkey’s original decision was appropriate.
She also advised that there are no further avenues of appeal within the University and that should the student wish to take this further, they must appeal outside the University.
NUSA obliged and referred the case to the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and the NSW Ombudsman. The AHRC has accepted the case and has begun investigations.
If you thought that University Officials had breached laws, policies and codes, would you expect that when they were brought to the attention of Senior Management at the University that they would take them seriously? Would you expect them to at least acknowledge receipt of them?
There are a number of key elements of this case which are very concerning to NUSA.
- How was a lecturer able to make allegations of such magnitude (forgery and coercion) with no evidence?
- Why did no University official after the lecturer had made his allegation require evidence to support the allegation?
- How was a student disallowed from enrolling in courses on the basis of an allegation which had no written evidence to support it?
- How have three separate University processes been commenced (SACO, Appeal Against a Final Grade and Dean of Students) without any person involved saying, “Wait. Hang on. Something isn’t right here?”
- After being told by the lecturer that he had no proof for his allegations, how could the Dean of Students failed to halt the processes? How could she tell the student that he could only challenge the “co-signatures” part of the allegations?
- How could the DVC (Academic), Prof. McConkey take 26 days to respond to the appeal and not give any substantial response supporting the University’s decisions?
- Why was Prof. McConkey being paid almost $450,000 a year?
- How can the Vice-Chancellor NOT respond to a submission of this magnitude?
- How can the Vice-Chancellor NOT respond, or appear to act, on any of the breaches that NUSA believes we have identified?
- Why is the Vice-Chancellor paid around $650,000 a year?
- The University is a public institution – where is the accountability and transparency?
- When each person became aware of the false allegations they appear to have turned a blind eye. How did they justify this?
- How can students believe and trust in the moral and ethical integrity of University officials and processes after this?
If the Vice-Chancellor, the president of the University, will not take responsibility for being informed of potential breaches – who will? Is the University allowed to act in whatever manner it sees fit, outside its own policies and Australian laws without repercussions?
It is NUSA’s opinion that:
At the University of Newcastle, students are guilty until proven innocent.
* The Dean of Students has contacted NUSA stating that this did not happen in the meeting with the student.