Death threats to university lecturers

By Legal Eagle

A while back, SL wrote a post on how charging very high fees for university degrees was difficult to combine with the provision of a quality education. She used the US as an example of a university system where the tendency towards expensive degrees had led to grade inflation. She commented:

First the demands coalesce around good teaching, grading consistency, provision of quality course materials. In time, however, they become ‘I paid my money, where’s my degree?’ People I know argue that this sort of thing is commoner among international students — they are perceived to have ‘purchased’ their degrees. However, to pretend that ‘home’ students don’t do the same thing is to engage in willful blindness.

It has to be said that if you are paying a premium for your degree, it is understandable that you would demand the provision of quality services. However, a report in the Herald Sun today suggests that in some instances, the ‘fees for degrees’ system can result in an attitude that “I’m paying money, give me good grades” — with violent threats backing the demand:

University lecturers are getting death threats from international students who have received bad grades.

Victoria Police are investigating one case at a state campus after an email was sent to a lecturer stating: “I will kill u and your family.”

It is understood the email was sent from a student who was given a low mark at the end of last semester and warned the lecturer to expect an attack on university grounds.

Four staff members from three Victorian universities told the Sunday Herald Sun threats against tertiary staff by international students were becoming more common.

Cars had been defaced with graffiti, teachers’ houses vandalised and staff physically intimidated and stalked by students.

One source said universities were reluctant to act on threats because international students were full fee-paying “cash cows”.

They are required to pay fees in advance and usually spend between $14,000 and $35,000 a year for a bachelor of arts and more for other degrees such as medicine, according to Australian Government estimates.

More than 151,000 international students were enrolled in different degrees at universities in Victoria last year.

Clinical psychologist Lisa Warren said she dealt with up to 15 cases involving university staff last year.

Dr Warren said the majority of the threats were made by email or on social networking sites by international and local students.

In the incident being probed by police, the emailer wrote: “Why did u give the f—ing low marks? I will kill u and your family next year 2012.

“I promise i will kill u excluding any cost, believe me.”

The victim, who did not want to be named, told the Sunday Herald Sun he was shocked and afraid the threat would be carried out.

“I have colleagues in the rooms next to me and if someone was to come in waving a gun it is a threat against all of us,” he said.

Police have contacted the Immigration Department about the threat, the victim said.

As an aside, given the quality of the writing contained in the death threat, it seems that the student could barely string a coherent sentence together and, consequently, it is hard to see how he or she could have done well in a tertiary degree of any kind.

One concerning aspect of the report was the anecdotal claim by one source that some universities are reluctant to take action against fee-paying students because they do not wish to lose the fees. If this is the case, then it is a very short-sighted approach. I think that universities have to take a firm position with incidents such as these. If they do not deal sternly with students who issue threats, and if they do not support lecturers who are threatened by students, then lecturers may move grades up to avoid being threatened, or even to just avoid creating trouble (viz. “It’s easier to let this person through with a bare pass than to fail them”). The university may win in the short term, because they keep the fee-paying student, but they lose in the long term, because the value of the degree is downgraded. The student gets a mark which he or she does not merit, and he or she is not capable of doing what is required to complete a particular course. If the student has completed a course which involves going into practice in some sense — as most do — then practitioners who come into contact with the student will think, “Clearly a degree from University X is not worth the paper it is written on.” The reputation of University X will go down the gurgler. Ultimately, I don’t think it’s a smart strategy for universities to turn a blind eye to incidents such as this.

46 Comments

  1. Posted January 9, 2012 at 6:16 am | Permalink

    I would not think the link is so concrete and in the case of Australia, there is an education culture that does not encourage meaningful, direct or intrusive evaluation of the study experience.

    Having worked in both Australia and internationally (state and private), good evaluation ensures quality teaching/learning and monitors academic progress of students, with potential for remedial actions.

    In other words proactive as opposed to reactive where the latter sees both studets and teachers under pressure.

  2. Posted January 9, 2012 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    That’s certainly an inappropriate way to deal with receiving low grades. I’d hope at the very least those students were excluded from the university.

    I’m not so confident that the university’s need to protect it’s prestige will drive it to adequately deal with these situations. From their point of view, such a poor student is not likely to graduate hence doesn’t provide a threat to the impression of their graduates. The longer they can keep them on the fee-paying hook the better for the university.

    As for good evaluation and quality teaching, so far I’ve had a couple of course coordinators go as far as saying they won’t provide any feedback on individual work other than marking for a single assignment and final exam.

  3. Ripples
    Posted January 9, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    I know I have no evidence or proof but I have always thought the educated person would not resort to violence or threats of violence to achieve an outcome such as reviewing a grade.

    It is likely and intellectual elitist stance to think better of the educated in this regard. In essence I would have to agree that from the action of a threat and the wording of same it is probable the low mark was warranted.

    Andrew does pose a very good point. I would present my answer to the question as to what constitutes Good Evaluation. As usual I don’t actually offer anything beyond the outcomes of the evaluation must be clearly understood by the person setting the evaluation task.

    The evaluator must ask themselves will the evaluation I set demonstrate the evaluation outcomes I seek.

    I did on occasion have difficulty with evaluation where I could not actually fathom what the evaluation was actually trying to achieve. In particular evaluation that involved presentation of materials to an audience and communication of concepts.

    This would make sense if the evaluation did not appear to favour the more eloquent speakers and presenters. Rather than an evaluation of the students understanding of the materials it appeared to become more an evaluation of their ability to communicate their understanding.

    This is hypothesized led to persons with good communication and understanding doing better than those with advanced understanding but average communication.

    This example was one I came across in an Environmental Planning subject (Foolish me did a Law/Environmental Science Double degree). I had bugger all grasp of the subject matter but was able to communicate well. My project associates couldn’t actually stand up in a public forum without becoming almost incoherent with fear and trepidation but knew the material to a very high standard.

    Come presentation I took the material they fed me and was able to communicate it without really having a good grasp of what I was actually talking about. (There was no requirement all group members present merely that they share the mark at the end so very open to hitchhikers). For my contribution it came down to the legal training in communicating and not Environmental Planning concepts.

    If I could paraphrase Brad Pitt’s monologue from the Movie Troy and use “Take it, its yours” in regard to promoting development of high density housing projects then I had to question the validity of the evaluation.’

    Of course it could just be a simple outcome of the group work process. We were possibly lucky in that we had the diversity of resources and were able to use the group resources effectively. I still don’t quite understand what the whole subject was actually about but enjoy my high mark regardless.

  4. Posted January 9, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    Coded exam papers omitting the name of the student may help solve the problem of skulduggery.

  5. Posted January 9, 2012 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    My view is whole or 360 evaluation for purposes of quality control, marketing and communication is not restricted to student academic performance. It is creating a positive organisational culture, including students, teaching, admin and other stakeholders being aware of what is actually going on, then acting accordingly in a timely manner when or if issues arise. Can never be perfect but better than situation where issues that may have been apparent to some, are discovered or communicated via media reports. Great example was international student welfare in Australia where media reported issues, but this suggested that universities etc. were not aware (or their duty of care ceased at 5pm)? Some would go further and suggest that students paying fees should expect a good education, service and opportunities for expressing concerns, if not, they go elsewhere or possibly resort to litigation.

    When it comes to evaluating students academic perfomance I understand is very difficult in large university classes versus smaller private colleges and TAFE. It is in private sector where I have worked mostly, with smaller classes, and I prefer to evaluate as a process with international students i.e. marking each step by step to ensure students are on track, and different skills are evaluated. Something like ethics/academic writing must be understood or implicit or constantly drilled in, then for any given assignment, research & findings written/submitted, presenting research to group or class for disscussion, drafting assignment & checking, final assignment & presentation, written reflection & evaluation and maybe an exam. This should allow opportunities for intervention, remedial action plus opportunties for student evaluation of teaching/learning environment.

    Tends not to be any surprises but difficult if not impossible sometimes without management support (who do not want to hear anything negative), professional developmen culture, large classes, bad attendance and casual teaching. v

  6. Posted January 9, 2012 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

    I must admit that when I wrote the original post, the thought that there would one day be threats of violence involved simply had not occurred to me. Maybe I’m naive. The worst I’ve ever heard of is the offer of sexual favours in exchange for better grades, but not threats of violence.

  7. Posted January 9, 2012 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if these reports get overblown a little bit, especially since international students having been copping a lot of attention and criticism past three years (especially from some with access to media who have an axe to grind, e.g. Dr. Bob Birrell springs to mind)?

    Relevant now would be domestic students also who are paying fees, in many cases equal to international, have there been similar cases or evidence of grade inflation and/or threats (possibly communicated better)?

  8. John H.
    Posted January 9, 2012 at 11:43 pm | Permalink

    Shouldn’t someone be issuing death threats to academics who consistently give good grades? I heard of one study in the USA where it was found 43% of students were getting As.

  9. John H.
    Posted January 9, 2012 at 11:45 pm | Permalink

    Vest, all exam papers/assignments/essays have student numbers and not names.

    Good, I read a German study which found that the grades given on papers were affected by the photo of the purported student on the paper. The more attractive the student, the better the grade.

  10. Patrick
    Posted January 10, 2012 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    We were possibly lucky in that we had the diversity of resources and were able to use the group resources effectively.

    Isn’t that the whole point of group work?

  11. Ripples
    Posted January 10, 2012 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    Patrick @ 15

    I agree it is the purpose of group work, yet I have found it to be more commonly the ideal than the reality. Many groups I have played with have been very homogenous with persons of similar talents and strengths choosing to work together.

    Lecturers tended to try and mix students up to try create diversity.

    It would be interesting to get the comparative study on threats. I would also like to know if it is limited to tertiary education or if they are turning up in other schools. Given the competition for university admission and scholarships in the United States can be very intense it might be a possibility.

    I always thought when I gave up practice and took up lecturing it would be a safer environment. Mind you I only got 3 threats of violence in 2011 so maybe it isn’t too bad.

  12. Adrien
    Posted January 10, 2012 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    The culture of degrees as a commodity that is being bought is widespread. I’ve even heard anecdotes where connected students get passes they don’t deserve. And harassment by international students over marks is commonplace; usually it takes the form of pleading.

    given the quality of the writing contained in the death threat, it seems that the student could barely string a coherent sentence together and, consequently, it is hard to see how he or she could have done well in a tertiary degree of any kind.

    It’s actually hard to see how they even got in. I’ve met Chinese Arts students who can barely speak English. There’s quite a lot of a short-term scam smell about Australian education and as,as you say, it will be disastrous once the bubble bursts.

    Moreover, for those of us who have Australian degrees which are worthwhile, we will find out investment downgraded by association.

  13. Posted January 10, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    As usual, press reports don’t provide the interesting detail.

    Did the student identify him/her/self?

    (It wouldn’t seem like much of a threat unless they did.)

    If the student is identifiable, then the question must surely be what precautionary and disciplinary steps the university takes. Is it a serious threat or a moment of rage facilitated by email?

    Notification to Immigration must be a long way down the list of necessary responses.

    I also agree with Andrew Smith @ 11. If “threats against tertiary staff by international students” are increasing, the numbers of such students are also increasing. Local students can also make threats, and do.

  14. Mel
    Posted January 10, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    Marcellous:

    “Notification to Immigration must be a long way down the list of necessary responses.”

    When I’m a guest in a foreign country I don’t make death threats and if I did I would expect to be jailed or kicked out. Ditto with this clown.

  15. Posted January 10, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    The damage is very easily done when awarding marks higher than deserved.

    Having been bitten once, I will never employ anybody with a degree from Deakin University. Ever.

    If a resume mentions Deakin University, it is immediately binned.

    The experience was too costly for me.

  16. Adrien
    Posted January 10, 2012 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    When I’m a guest in a foreign country I don’t make death threats

    But when you’re home then it’s a’right. 🙂

  17. Posted January 10, 2012 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    Steve at the Pub, interesting, Deakin like several of their counterparts use a pathway/preparation provider which guarantees entry to university…… Some in the international side of the education industry jokingly claim that the (public co.) provider, makes Oz international higher education policy to satisfy shareholders and stakeholders through very (too) close connections to government……. but of course this would never happen in Australia…….

  18. kvd
    Posted January 10, 2012 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    [email protected], hard to cut through the language, but it seems to me you may be talking about one of your competitors? Just a polite query.

  19. Posted January 10, 2012 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

    Hardly, we are merely a minnow, they are a multi million dollar ASX listed company providing English, migrant settlement programs and university pathways for Australian, US and UK universities in various international locations.

  20. kvd
    Posted January 10, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Andrew. Herewith a free ad for you:

    AIEC Australian International Education Centre assists with Australian study and visa application with work rights, free of charge. Study in Australia is open to candidates of all ages, education backgrounds and you do not need to be a student in your home country. All Australian institutions we deal with are both CRICOS registered for overseas students under the AQF.

    AIEC can assist with study or training placements for ANZSCO Occupations through two year AQF study pathways which are CRICOS registered for international students. etc. etc.

    That seems pretty similar to your above description of their services. But as I said, it’s hard to get through the language.

  21. Posted January 10, 2012 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

    Yes that is because it is directed toward international candidates for which there is a jargon developed by Oz govt. depts, very different for domestic. We do not provide any university prep courses, so we are not competition.

    For your info, the company I am referring to is one of our partners 🙂 Why? Because if you have candidates needing university preparation for their chosen university, you must refer them through the same co., good business for them. Nonetheless, we don’t deal with university candidates much anymore, Oz too expensive.

  22. Posted January 10, 2012 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

    kvd, you know who I am, just a polite enquiry, who are you?

  23. Posted January 10, 2012 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    Ah, Andrew, we don’t ask people to reveal their identity on this blog, as long as we (ie the blog admins) know who they are. This is because – at various times – we have had a Supreme Court judge, a member of the Board of a prominent Australian bank, senior partners at various law firms and a journalist who’d just been given the sack under very murky circumstances commenting here. And that’s just off the top of my head.

    I realise that there are problems with anonymity and that it does facilitate some fairly shitty behaviour online, but the alternative is to lose those voices altogether. We think our position is a reasonable compromise in all the circumstances.

  24. Posted January 10, 2012 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

    [email protected], I guess my point was that if the first time a student receives feedback on their work is after the exam or assignment, to me it seems far too late. There’s obviously a large variation in approaches, however there certainly seem to be at least some lecturers who see education as simply a matter of talking at people (or having vaguely on topic conversations). I can understand the frustration of students who are promised a ‘world class’ education and end up with some “geezer” who waffles on week after week, giving little opportunity for students to determine how much the content is soaking in, or how what they can produce compares to what is expected (at least before it’s too late for the student to take action).

  25. Posted January 10, 2012 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

    Skepticlawyer, fair cop, it was more a rhetorical question. Feeling that one was being checked out and stalked rather than issues being addressed, much like Oz politics and media 🙂

  26. kvd
    Posted January 11, 2012 at 3:11 am | Permalink

    Sorry Andrew – went to bed almost immediately after my last comment, hence no earlier response to [email protected] You can be assured that I have absolutely no connection with the ins and outs of higher education.

    Further you can be assured that I am not ‘stalking you’ as you suggest just above – but I certainly was interested to judge how much weight to place on your “some…jokingly claim..” comment @23 – precisely because of my own lack of knowledge of the higher education ‘industry’.

  27. Posted January 11, 2012 at 3:25 am | Permalink

    Fine, understand most of us who went through Australia system in more innocent days are not aware of the international business issues in Australian higher education. While focus is upon international students, quality and immigration, changes of past 25 years with injection of billions of dollars have encouraged much conflict of interest, unethical and corrupt behaviour not just dodgy colleges, but in and around TAFEs and universities, in my opinion.

  28. Posted January 11, 2012 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    Mel @ 20

    I’m not saying that there isn’t an immigration/visa issue at some point.

    Generally speaking I would have thought the time for police to get in touch with immigration should be after charges have been brought and upheld.

    I’m really unkeen on the idea that every time we think someone one on a visa has done something unpleasant we have to be telling immigration about it.

    I thought that part of the story reeked of playing to the gallery.

    There are other procedures in place to ensure that a person on an education visa is still gainfully enrolled.

    I

  29. conrad
    Posted January 11, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    “If a resume mentions Deakin University, it is immediately binned.”

    It’s not just you that thinks Deakin is dodgey — we never take any of their applications for 4th year where I work because of this. I think a big factor with Deakin is that they were the first to really try and do things online in Vic, and least in my opinion, it isn’t a very successful model since you often end up with ultra-prescriptive assignments and it is very hard to do anything that requires interaction and thought (vs. connect the dots). This is happening where I work too unfortunately, so it looks like we’re in a race for the bottom also (indeed almost everywhere is at present now the OS market has dried up).

  30. Patrick
    Posted January 11, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    In defense of Deakin, I would have shared your opinions by sheer bias but two of the best lawyers I’ve worked with are Deakin grads. Neither smashed it in VCE but both are seriously good operators and yet another of the same mould is from LaTrobe.

    That taught me a real lesson in the cost of snobbery – thank God my firm was open to hiring these people (one was actually a lateral from a major law firm so we obviously aren’t the only ones though).

  31. conrad
    Posted January 12, 2012 at 4:06 am | Permalink

    Patrick,

    you can find good students everywhere (I once had a super student from ACU, which has a terrible reputation), but for many people who have an oversupply of them, it’s just minimizing your odds of problems. Even the poorer students we get from Melbourne, for example, are at least fairly independent (unlike Monash) as Melbourne uses a sink-or-swim teaching strategy (we use the opposite, so ours can be very dependent) so by the end of their degree they are usually at least reasonable. It will be interesting to see if that holds with the Melbourne model. It’s also the case that the quality of teaching can differ vastly across courses, although it is possible for management to implement policies that lead to homogenous badness across most courses (e.g., setting TER scores very low or forcing people to teach 100% of courses online).

  32. Ripples
    Posted January 12, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    LE @ 30

    Alas of the 3, the first was more bluster from the dock, the second was from the respondent party in a domestic violence matter with threats of “I will find where you live” etc and the third was an attempted assault outside the courtroom.

    The question of the value of a degree is interesting in respect to a market economy. In this is it possible that degrees could in fact be worthless based on the quality of education provided to students and the lack of graduates actual capable of performing the work for which they are allegedly qualified. Alas economic theory was not my strongest area.

    One employer I know of will grant a mature aged student / new graduate an automatic interview if a position is applied for regardless of their academic record. This I think is based on the value of the life experience the recent graduate also comes with.

    If the merits test for an employee would be greater than just academic record then I don’t believe degree factories will be held accountable until such time as they become mere printing presses.

    The education may not be great but I think some students will educate themselves in spite of the educator and ruin the whole market model.

  33. Adrien
    Posted January 14, 2012 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    The question of the value of a degree is interesting in respect to a market economy. In this is it possible that degrees could in fact be worthless based on the quality of education provided to students and the lack of graduates actual capable of performing the work for which they are allegedly qualified.

    The quality of an institution’s education will fluctuate constantly due to various factors particularly who’s teaching and who’s getting taught. Part of the brand-name status of universities is their ability to demonstrably produce good graduates over several generations.

    Australian Universities are comparatively young hence vulnerable to a ‘bad quality’ scandal. I’m not much familiar with the history of older universities but perhaps it’s a standard part of a pattern to have such scandals at places from time to time.

  34. Posted January 14, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    Coincidentally there is a parellel conversation going on via British university diary blog raising many of the same issues.

    While there is more emphasis upon (fee based) university becoming an end in itself and the pitfalls, many now question tha value:

    http://universitydiary.wordpress.com/2012/01/12/finding-graduate-work/#comments

  35. wittyknitter
    Posted January 19, 2012 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    A bit late to this party… sorry, I’ve been in Thesisland.

    Andrew @9, I think you are mixing up evaluation (looking back to see how the course went) and assessment (deciding how much students have learned and, in our crude system, giving them a mark accordingly). Student evaluation (.ie. the reporting by students on what they think the course achieved) isn’t done well in Aus, and one of the reasons that staff are so reluctant to do it is that if it is not done well, it can be (and has been) used as a weapon against staff. Assessment is what we’re really talking about here, and believe me, everyone who’s posted, domestic students are not averse to a bit of threat on occasion. I know one Dean who had police protection on and off campus for a month, and another who had to take out an AVO against a student. My own partner, dealing with an obstructive and aggressive student as Head of Dept, heard the ominous phrase “And I know where you live…”, followed by her address. She immediately took her phone ex-directory (this was about ten years ago), but it didn’t help when the student was then admitted to a mental hospital just round the corner. All of these students were domestic. Overseas students tended to go the more ‘legal’ route: complaining higher up or even attempting to go to court.

    Less serious threats included the father of a student threatening to “take her to Fair Trading” because he’d ‘paid good money” for his daughter’s degree.

    One of the reasons that students may threaten violence is that they are afraid of the consequences of failing, which may be very serious for students whose parents have gone into debt to send them to Australia, or who have unreasonably high hopes for their first-generation children in Australia. It’s a complex business.

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