If you are visiting my site it is most likely because you have heard of my ongoing struggle with the University of New South Wales. The recent decision in the NCAT Tribunal in Sydney has gotten some media attention. The University has been found to be in breach of section 17 of the Privacy and Personal Information Protection Act (PPIP) (1998). It is a long story with a considerable amount of background…
You can read more here:
SOME BACKGROUND TO MY LEGAL STRUGGLE WITH THE UNIVERSITY OF NEW SOUTH WALES
- I enrolled in the School of the Arts and Media (SAM) at the University of New South Wales to complete a PhD in the field of English literature. I did so after accepting the University’s Postgraduate Research Scholarship (UIPA). In order to accept this offer, it was necessary to decline another offer from the University of Adelaide — a prospect that may have turned out much better. Three years later, amid widespread budget and staff cuts, my candidature at UNSW was discontinued, at a time when it had apparently become very inconvenient for the University to follow through on their obligations to supervise my doctoral research.
The following is an account of how the events leading up to that discontinuation unfolded, and continue to reverberate in the New South Wales Civil and Administrative Tribunal. It is a story of vicious accusations, negligence, and maladministration that I believe will be all too familiar to those in the Australian legal community — especially those practitioners who have dealt recently with matters involving postgraduate students at odds with their universities.
After my acceptance, I would learn that my scholarship offer was an occasion of considerable resentment and discord between the administration of the School of the Arts and Media (SAM) and the University’s admissions committee. It seems I was given a lower priority by the School and yet was selected by the admissions committee over the school’s preferred applicant, inspiring resentment from the faculty and administration of SAM. Of course, I knew nothing about this at the time. I was told something much different by the University. For instance, my first head supervisor wrote —
“I have read through your writing sample and find your ideas about the connections between writing in the period stretching from the Regency to the mid-nineteenth century very interesting and would be happy to supervise a topic in this area which I know so well.” (email, 7 February 2011).
After a year of working with my fist supervisor, I terminated her, citing negligence and an unacceptable attitude towards her supervisory duties. The Graduate Research School supported my decision. I seldom saw her during that first year, at one point having no contact whatsoever for three full months (mid-November 2011, to mid-February, 2012). Most notably, she was negligent in assisting me to prepare for my first-year confirmation hearing — the most important milestone of my candidature. For instance, she refused to meet with me before the completion of my final draft despite multiple requests. It was on this basis that I requested her termination as my supervisor at the Graduate Research School.
Much later, almost a full-year after I fired her, in a clearly malicious and retaliatory gesture, she would write reproachfully to SAM’s Head of School, seeking the discontinuation of my candidature:
“I was approached by the school HDR Convenor in mid 2011 to supervise Trevor
Jackson (TJ). I expressed strong reservations about the academic merit of his
proposal and sample work. Despite these reservations, I was encouraged to
supervise TJ. I was a new research only member of staff and did not want to
appear unwilling to contribute so I agreed.” (Statement, 4 July 2013).”
The inconsistency between these two communications is noteworthy. During the year she was responsible for the supervision of my thesis, she never expressed any reservations about my research. The reason this is important is because I accepted UNSW’s offer with the understanding that the University assumed the responsibility of furnishing me with supervision for the duration of my candidature. In reality, I was given a supervisor who apparently did not even like my work, saw me a total of five times the entire first year of my candidature, and failed to give much of any oversight to my confirmation application. After her dismissal, she behaved in what I considered to be a malicious and vindictive manner (see below).
Unfortunately, the problems with supervision did not stop when my fist supervisor was terminated by the Graduate Research School. In August of 2012 I was assigned a new supervisor. Under this second supervisor, my thesis topic was officially confirmed by a higher degree research committee, and I began to make significant progress. However, towards the end of the year I was working with her, I noticed a rapid change in her behavior. She became preoccupied with documenting all interactions in a manner that made me feel like a paper-trail was being created. I mentioned my concern to her about this, and it clearly made things much worse. She became hostile and defensive. She also became uncommunicative, making it impossible to confer with her on on important issues pertaining to my second year progress hearing, another important milestone in my candidature.
Concerned about her conduct, and once again finding myself with very shaky supervision, I was left basically with no real contact. I had a “co-supervisor” but he clearly wanted nothing to do with my supervision. He was not an expert in my field and obviously did not want to be involved with my thesis in any substantial way.
One day, I was told one day by the Postgraduate Coordinator (PGC) that my supervisor had taken a leave of absence. Later, I would learn that she had reported a variety of medical conditions — all of which she had apparently identified me as being the sole cause of. (It should be noted that at this time the University was experiencing severe budget cuts and she also had an unmanageable teaching load).
She would subsequently resign, concluding a long career at the University. While I do not have the details, it is my belief that she was able to finance what amounted to an early retirement, aided, perhaps, by medical benefits and other financial compensation related to her sudden departure — that I had been blamed for.
I learned about all of this in a bizarre way. I was summoned into a meeting with upper-management — Assistant Dean (research) Kristy Muir, as well as the Research Director of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Stephen Fortescue. The tone of the meeting was decidedly serious. I was not given an itinerary beforehand. In the meeting, I was accused of the following:
- -Persistent and badgering emails;
- – Uninvited visits to staff offices;- Presumptuous and over-stepping behaviour;
- – Disrespectful and disputatious verbal responses when in discussion of work;
- – Physical behaviour and body language which has created an experience of fear for staff;
- – Intrusion on personal space and undue familiarity in meetings with academic staff.
Keep in mind that they did not bother to tell me who said these things or what I had done to have inspired such a sullying and potentially career-destroying list of transgressions. The Dean and Director refused to give me any details.
I responded to these allegations after a subsequent formal complaint was submitted by SAM’s Head of School. The accusations were attested to by the first supervisor, whom I had terminated a year before, andan individual who was listed as my co-supervisor but whom I never met with formally. In addition, the supervisor who had just taken “stress leave” and who would later resign contributed a “Statement of Impact”, citing the psychiatric disturbances mentioned above, and blaming me for them in their entirety.
Two weeks later, on 30 July 2013 —
I was entirely exonerated from any wrongdoing by the University’s Student Conduct and Appeals Officer, after I submitted my own account of the circumstances.
The accusations were vicious, defamatory, retaliatory and absolutely baseless. While I felt very relieved to have successfully defended myself against them, I was also left, once again, with no supervision and the emotional residue of a very disturbing sequence of events.
As an international student, alone in a foreign country with very little in the way of a support network (besides my flatmates), I decided to take matters into my own hands. I approached the Dean and Vice-Chancellor Laura Poole-Warren with the suggestion that I find outside supervision to complete my thesis, yet remain enrolled at UNSW. Professor Poole-Warren assured me that it was indeed a possibility to complete my PhD under part-time external status, and readily gave her consent to this plan. She also emphasized quite plainly that she would assist me in finding a “candidature administrator”. She made it perfectly clear that any need for on-site supervision was a minor consideration, and that the most important element would be my ability to obtain qualified supervision outside of the University. As for the “candidature administrator” she suggested that this person could be just about anybody on staff, and made it sound more like a secretarial position than anything else. Later she would concede this was “a poor choice of words” when she told me that “GRS can arrange for someone to handle the administrative role,” but has never denied making these representations.
And Here’s Where it Gets Kind of Interesting
What I did not know at the time was that my prospects for finding any supervision at the University of New South Wales had already been destroyed by SAM’s Head of School. The HOS had been angered when GRS terminated my first supervisor the year before, and was further incensed by my second supervisor’s unexpected resignation. In a bizarre twist, I would later learn that the HOS would suggest to others that supervision was unavailable to me in SAM due to a restriction of “The University’s Health and Safety Policy!
The Head of School of the School of the Arts and Media (SAM) as well as the Deputy Head of School both made claims that my right to interact with people in the school of the arts has been prevented by the university’s OH&S policy. I sought clarification of this from the Student Conduct and Integrity officer, who has in turn sought clarification from the University’s Legal Counsel, and I remain confused and very disturbed by my inability to find any clear coherent information on this matter.
In a nutshell, as far as I can gather, the University’s Health and Safety policy has been used as a means to defame me and prevent me from obtaining supervision as a postgraduate research student. I can cite a wide range of documents regarding this outrage, however, two documents I have in my possession seem to encapsualte the problem . One is a letter written by the former DHOS of SAM. who states the following:
“Mr Jackson is not currently enrolled at UNSW and is not supervised by any member of SAM academic staff. I have also been informed that UNSW OH&S policy prevents further interaction between Mr Jackson and SAM staff. “
The obvious implication was that I was somehow officially deemed to be danger and a health and safety risk to the community, through some formal process, and that there was consequently some sort of official decree made that prevented me from speaking to anybody at the school.
Asked later about this, the HOS provided a vague and conflicting account. In an email to a student complaints coordinator, he wrote:
“I have spoken with [the Deputy Head of School] and can confirm that the OH&S issue mentioned in her letter only relates to PhD supervision contact for SAM staff with Mr. Jackson.”
The University’s Health &Safety policy prevents me from supervision contact?
Because my candidature was discontinued as a result of not being able to obtain supervision in SAM, this is a very big problem. At the time I knew absolutely nothing about Australian laws involving health and safety. I was confused and intimidated. I thought there really might be some official restriction. It has taken me several years to figure out that this was an absolute fabrication, and that there was nothing preventing me from speaking to anybody. By saying that the health and safety policy prevented me from speaking to anybody was, as far as I am concerned, a case of malicious defamation.
I consider this matter ongoing as I have yet to receive an intelligible account from the University concerning it, causing an enormous amount of ongoing distress. For literally years, I have asked numerous senior staff about any restrictions upon me and have never received a straight answer. My efforts at clarification have reached the University’s legal department, the Student Conduct and Integrity officer, upper-management at SAM, and Professor Poole-Warren herself. Despite concerted efforts, no one at the University is willing to provide me with a coherent explanation. I consider this highly-distressing matter to be ongoing and unresolved.
Recently, I discovered that the University’s OH&S policy has coordinators within each faculty. I contacted the University manager of OH&S. I requested anonymity but, astonishingly he turned around and immediately contacted the legal office! Shortly afterwards, he issued a terse reply to my inquiries through one of his subordinates:
I have spoken to my supervisor who said that he has been advised that you are already dealing with UNSW Legal regarding your enquiries and any future correspondence is to be sent to them, including if you wish to raise an issue related to your concern re misuse, or inappropriate use, of UNSW Health and Safety Policy.
I strongly resent this. I have very recently learned that I have a right to raise concerns regarding misuse of OH&S policies through both public interest disclosures or the NSW Ombudsman, neither of which require contact with the Universities Counsel. Further, as the legal matters currently before the Tribunal have absolutely nothing to do with the OH&S issue, I believe my rights protecting me from retaliation may have been breached when the University’s legal staff informed the University manager of OH&S. not to speak with me. I requested clarification from both him, as well as the University’s General Counsel, Elizabeth Grinston, and am awaiting replies.
I have digressed with the story of the University’s disgraceful misuse of their OH&S policy. before bringing that matter up above, I was describing the arrangement I had made with Dean and PVC (research) about supervision arrangements.
With solid encouragement from the Pro-Vice Chancellor on the likelihood of obtaining acceptable internal administration of my candidature, I embarked from Sydney to Beijing, China in August of 2013. There, I quickly struck up a relationship with an eminent scholar in my field at Tsinghua University. I accepted a lecturing position there, at very low wages, on the pretext that I would be able to finish my PhD on “part-time external status” as Professor Poole-Warren assured me was possible. At Tsinghua, I found a head-supervisor among my colleagues in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature — an academic who had done his post-doctoral work at Harvard University and taught at the University of California at Berkeley in the United States before taking up a position at Tsinghua.
After going through all of the formalities with the University, signing all of the necessary papers and doing everything imaginable in order to secure the scholar’s formal acceptance of the terms, the University reneged on its pledge to assign a “candidature administrator”, changing the terms entirely and now insisting that I would need a “head supervisor” as well as a “primary supervisor” at UNSW. Had I been told this before I left Sydney, I never would have relinquished my residency.
This needs special attention. I literally moved to China in order to find supervision and save my PhD. I acccepted the lecturing position on Chinese-standard wages, (practically nothing) and found myself stranded in a foreign country with no supervision and no way of finishing my degree. By promising me that they would provide me with supervision, Laura Poole-Warren achieved the benefit of getting me out of the country, separating me from my scholarship as well as my student visa, and placing me in the worst predicament of my life.
In a letter dated 8 July 2015, Professor Poole-Warren acknowledged that “Although accepting Linda’s summary” (the ARC legal representative) she now sought to completely revise the terms of the understanding we made before I left Sydney.
I decided that I needed to complain, however I was at serious disadvantage. With my candidature discontinued, I had no visa, and no way of even entering Australia as a student. I spoke to Kimberley Dickinson, the University’s Student Conduct and Integrity Officer about my predicament. Sounding sympathetic, she suggested that I first contact the right to information officer to make a GIPA (2009) request in order to retrieve some necessary documents related to my candidature. At that point in time, I did not know what a GIPA (2009) request was. She advised me to make my request for information as “broad” as possible (email, 19 January 2016).
The details of this preliminary request are now a matter of public record. The university has been found to have committed a violation of section 17 of the Privacy and Personal Information Protection Act (1998), a serious breach of my privacy. The documents they have submitted, as well as their ongoing behavior, strongly suggest that there is a much larger breach that remains concealed and may lead to further, more serious charges in the future. I have raised the prospect of criminal concealment and malfeasance, involving offenses described in sections 116 to 120 of the GIPA Act (2009). I will have the opportunity to request orders from the Tribunal addressing these concerns in the 6 March hearing, pursuant to their authority under section 55 of the PPIP (1998).
Since winning the judgment in the Tribunal, I have submitted another GIPA (2009) request to UNSW’s principal officer, Vice-Chancellor Ian Jacobs. Of necessity, it is considerably more detailed than the first, encompassing not only to find the original information I sought for my underlying complaint regarding the discontinuation of candidature, but also new information concerning the scope of the breach which is clearly much larger than the university has thus far conceded (see 8 May 2017 statement by Paul Serov, 9 May submissions by the University, 7 February email from Laura Poole-Warren).
Prior to pursuing a PhD in English literature, I was a university lecturer at Korea University in South Korea. This is one of the more sought after positions in my field. I sacrificed a great deal to pursue my PhD. While my motives for pursuing a PhD were largely for personal enrichment, I also expected to command a much higher salary as well as a more attractive position, once I obtained my PhD .
Although the UIPA stipend was adequate to live a modest lifestyle in Sydney, my pursuit of the higher degree represented a huge opportunity cost to my lifetime earnings, as I halted my career in my prime earning years in order to obtain a PhD. For these reasons, the income I would have earned on completion of my PhD is substantial and, cumulatively, this loss of income will have a serious impact on my prospects for retirement.
My move to China to take an even lower paying position than my stipend offered was predicated on the assurances given me by Laura Poole-Warren that —
“GRS can arrange for someone to handle the administrative role”
— for my supervision at UNSW. Consequently, it was devastating to my career when I found myself stranded in China, in a job paying $16,000 a year, while UNSW had reneged on their assurances that they could arrange the local support that was nexessary at UNSW. To make matters worse, it was not possible even to go back to Sydney because I was no longer eligible for a student visa.
Having no immediate prospects for a higher degree, and making only sustenance wages at Tsinghua, I took a teaching position at a university in Southern Oman. It was a substantial demotion from the positions that I had held before, but with serious depletion if my savings, caused by what had now been a four-year quest for a PhD, I found it necessary to attempt to make up for lost time and savings. My current job, also in Oman, is less than ideal in terms of location and working conditions, and pays considerably less than I would make with a PhD. At this point in time it will be very hard to make up for what I estimate to be approximately $150,000 in lost wages had I either remained at the University of Auckland to finish my degree, or simply stayed at Korea university. In fact, I may need to extend my working life by another five years in order to make up for the loss of the PhD.
What does the University have against me?
Not much of anything — well, nothing at all. They attempted to saddle me with what looks like a store-bought gift basket, filled with garden-variety allegations such as “threatening” behavior that created “an experience of fear”, and other familiar items, but it backfired. Any time these accusations received any substantive questioning, they evaporated, and were found to be comprised of fairly mundane daily interactions — and all of them arose at exactly the same time the University was having difficulty finding a supervisor. Without exception, each of the accusations were found to contain the likelihood of ulterior motives, directly related to either personal gain, or the fact that the University was having a difficult time finding a supervisor in a time of massive budget cuts.
I believe these sorts of spurious accusations will be familiar to members of the Australian legal community as well as many other postgraduate students who have disagreed with their university’s administration. It appears that such accusations have become a popular and cost-effective way of managing postgraduate research in the 21st century. I have successfully refuted all of the vicious accusations made against me and have extensive documentation of my refutations, as well as the University’s responses. I plan on publishing this material in the not-too-distant future.
Since the time of those awful accusations, I have proven in the NCAT Tribunal that the University has been negligent in their administrative policies — perhaps criminally so. I believe my continuing requests for agency-held information through the Government Information (Public Access) Act (GIPA) (2009) will yield a great deal more information about their negligence and maladministration pertaining to my candidature as well as more far-reaching issues. In short, I believe I have an excellent case against the University and that all they have to offer in return is a thin veil of smoke and mirrors hiding malice and malfeasance.
STAY TUNED FOR THE CASE CONFERENCE AT THE NEW SOUTH WALES CIVIL AND ADMINISTRATIVE TRIBUNAL ON:
Tuesday, 6 March 2018 at 9.30 am.
Civic Tower, 66 Goulburn St, Sydney NSW 2000, Australia
Read more about the Tribunal’s decision, finding UNSW in breach of section 17 of the Privacy and Personal Information Protection Act (1998) here: