BY BEN SOMERFORD
Curtin University could “grind to a halt” in semester one next year because of changes to the way sessional academics are hired in the wake of the sex-for-grades scandal, according to the National Tertiary Education Union.
The union is concerned that unit coordinators will not be able to comply with the rapid introduction of a raft of new policies, labelled ‘policy mania’, which could potentially leave students without teachers when they start university next year.
NTEU Curtin branch president Jan Sinclair-Jones said these changes would stretch resources and could lead to chaos.
“The university does have a bad habit of when one person behaves badly, kicking everybody,” she said.
“It is our view that semester one next year the university will just grind to a halt in [some] areas.”
Some Curtin faculties rely heavily on sessional academics with last year’s annual report revealing that an estimated 39 per cent of academic staff were sessional.
The policies follow recommendations from a Corruption and Crime Commission report which was tabled in state parliament on September 2.
In the report the commission said former Curtin sessional Nasrul Ali had pressured four students – three Chinese and a Malaysian – for sex in return for higher grades.
All sessional staff positions must now be formally advertised.
Applicants will be required to provide and pay for a national police clearance, sign a conflict of interest declaration, provide a CV and certified transcripts of their academic records.
Heads of schools will be required to ensure all new sessional staff have been interviewed and had references checked before the start of the teaching year.
Dr Sinclair-Jones said the problem was that unit coordinators did not know how many sessionals they would require until shortly before semester.
“You don’t know what size your class is going to be,” she said. “What happens often is in first or second week of semester you try to find sessional teachers to pick up classes.
“We are lucky to find the sessional staff that we have. You cannot go through those sorts of processes.
“We’re competing with other universities for staff. [Sessionals] have to have a police check to work at Curtin but there’s not that hassle at ECU or Murdoch, for example.”
Curtin corporate relations vice-president Val Raubenheimer said the new policies were about minimising the risk of staff misconduct, but Dr Sinclair-Jones said the university’s reaction to the CCC’s report had gone too far and was an “over-reaction”.
Ms Raubenheimer conceded there could be “teething problems” early next year but she said the university had to take decisive action.
“I am quite realistic about these things,” she said.
“Sometimes they are hard to implement in the first year. It is going to be more work, but we are going to have to do this to ensure standards are met.”
The Curtin Business School used the new sessionals policy in semester two this year.
CBS pro vice-chancellor Duncan Bentley said his department had good results.
“CBS has undertaken considerable work to implement a comprehensive sessional staff recruitment model this semester and is already seeing excellent results in assuring a high quality pool of sessional staff,” he said.
Ms Raubenheimer said the pools of suitable applicants would help in situations of short notice.
Curtin has also reacted to the CCC report by setting up a ten-member Professional Standards and Conduct Unit aimed at improving the complaints system and educating all staff about misconduct.
All staff must attend an annual one-hour session on misconduct which Dr Sinclair-Jones said would irritate the majority of staff members who believe they already behave with integrity.
Dr Sinclair-Jones said she had not yet attended her compulsory session but reported that some colleagues had been annoyed by the sessions.
Media, Culture and Creative Arts Teaching and Learning committee chair Kerry Smith said she had concerns about the university’s “policy mania” in the wake of the CCC report.
“I think you can have too many policies,” she said.
“I’m not saying this one is not necessary in the long-term but you’ve got to be careful when there’s ‘policy rain’ going on.”
Curtin Student Guild president Jessica Short said she could see benefits for students.
“It works in favour of students, as we know the people who are teaching us are qualified and value integrity,” she said.
Curtin’s international reputation might have suffered from the sex-for-grades scandal but Ms Raubenheimer said it was too early to tell.
About 22 per cent of Curtin’s revenue is from international students.
Media Monitoring found the scandal had been reported widely in China.
“If it does affect the market it will potentially be in China,” Ms Raubenheimer said.
Published in the Western Independent October 2010