The Unanswered Questions In The Hunt For Freya Newman

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It was a scandal in the halls of academe.

In late 2011, Paul Greenfield, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Queensland, was forced to resign.

The reason? According to the university, there had been “an irregularity in the enrolment process”.

Irregular it certainly was. Despite under-performing on her admissions test, Greenfield’s daughter had been given a “forced offer” to the prestigious School of Medicine at the sandstone university.

As the official report by the Queensland Crime and Misconduct Commission makes plain, Greenfield had pulled strings to get his daughter a place. In the quaint but revealing terminology of university corruption, a “forced offer” occurs when “an offer to a student to enrol in a particular course is made manually into the computer system rather than letting the computer system automatically select the students to receive an offer based on certain conditions such as scores.”

It turned out that young Ms Greenfield (we still don’t know her first name) had been given a spot in the highly competitive degree above more than 340 better-qualified students. Indeed, she’d failed one of the three sections of her entrance exam. On the university’s rules, therefore, she was not eligible for a place.

That didn’t stop her father, Paul. Although he was away on holidays, he was, after all, the University’s boss.

Greenfield called the head of the medical school, David Wilkinson. According to Wilkinson, Greenfield asked him bluntly, “Is there any other way we can get her into medicine at UQ?” Feeling under pressure, Wilkinson contacted UQ’s acting Vice-Chancellor, Michael Keniger.

Keniger acted swiftly. “I will arrange for her to be accepted,” Keniger said. The admissions office was phoned. When the office expressed some reservations, Wilkinson phoned Keniger back. They had a short conversation. Wilkinson phoned academic registrar Maureen Bowen, and told her that the request had come straight from the top. The next day, the offer was duly sent out.

It was nine months before the UQ nepotism scandal came to light. Senior staff members, including executive deans, knew about the forced offer. One senior professor even examined the official medical school database, to see whether students had been admitted without the requisite scores. As the CMC report details, there he found “anomalies in the admissions of several students, namely, that they had not achieved the requisite… score.” But he didn’t go public with that information.

The beans were finally spilled in September 2011. In an unrelated probe, Maureen Bowen told a UQ investigative officer about what had happened. The University’s Senate and Chancellor were told. An investigation was launched. Greenfield and Keniger stood aside.

When the news broke, a storm of controversy blew up. Brisbane daily The Courier-Mail ran several articles on the scandal, and the University was forced to update its admissions procedures and internal integrity safeguards.

Greenfield and Keniger never returned to their roles. Their academic management careers were ruined; Greenfield also stepped down from his chairmanship of the board of ANSTO, the federal government’s nuclear science agency. In its official report on the matter, the CMC reserved stinging criticism for UQ for downplaying the seriousness of the affair.

It’s interesting to contrast the UQ admissions scandal to another college scandal involving the daughter of a powerful person: Frances Abbott.

While the cases are not identical, they have much in common. When Tony Abbott was opposition leader, his daughter, Frances Abbott, was offered a lucrative scholarship to a private design college, the Whitehouse Institute of Design.

Ms Abbott was offered a scholarship that wasn’t advertised, wasn’t announced, and for which ordinary students cannot apply.

As a result, she paid just $7,546 for the $68,182 degree. She was later given a job by the Whitehouse Institute, a position that leaked documents showed did not have a formally defined role.

It seems impossible to reconcile the Whitehouse Institute’s claim that the Abbott scholarship was awarded “on merit” with the known facts of the case. The leaked documents obtained by New Matilda reveal that Ms Abbott was offered the “Managng (sic) Director’s Scholarship” at her first and only meeting with the owner of the Institute, Leanne Whitehouse.

To this day, the Whitehouse Institute’s website still says it does not offer scholarships.

Just as in UQ’s case, accepted protocols appear to have been by-passed, and academic governance procedures were substandard.

In fact, in some key aspects, what went on at the Whitehouse Institute was far worse than what went on at UQ.

UQ at least made a public, formal offer of its place in medical school to Ms Greenfield. The University’s governing Senate also acted swiftly to investigate when the scandal came to light. Finally, senior executives resigned when their positions became untenable.

In contrast, at the Whitehouse Institute, the very existence of the scholarship was kept a secret. When it was outed, there was no internal investigation. Nor was there any admission of improper behaviour. The Whitehouse Institute continues to maintain that it has done nothing wrong, and that the daughter of the Prime Minister was offered a scholarship on the basis of academic merit.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott pictured with his daughter, Frances and wife Margaret at a Whitehouse Institute function.

In the debate about Freya Newman’s role and actions, it remains astonishing that so little media attention has focused on the actions of the Whitehouse Institute educators on whom she is accused of blowing the whistle.

Private tertiary education in Australia has long taken a back seat to the larger and more established higher education providers in the public sector. But that doesn’t mean that private colleges don’t have a responsibility to the students they educate, nor to the public at large.

The taxpayer is an indispensable subsidiser of private tertiary colleges in this country: without access by students to subsidised federal loans through the FEE-HELP system, many private colleges would fold.

Critically, the state also sanctions and regulates the provision of higher education. You can’t just hang out your shingle in Australia and start offering degrees. Like every other college and university, the Whitehouse Institute falls under the federal tertiary regulator, TEQSA, which has accredited it to issue bachelors and masters degrees.

The law that governs TEQSA accreditation – the Higher Education Standards Framework (Threshold Standards) 2011 – makes for interesting reading in light of the Frances Abbott affair. Section 3.7 of the act mandates that:

The higher education provider’s corporate governing body protects the academic integrity and quality of the higher education provider’s higher education operations through academic governance arrangements that provide a clear and discernable separation between corporate and academic governance, including a properly constituted academic board and course advisory committees.

It’s certainly open to question whether this section of the act has been complied with in the Frances Abbott affair. At the very least, the governing body has interfered with what would normally be an academic decision.

It appears as though the academic board played no role in the offering of a scholarship to Frances Abbott.

Did Frances Abbott formally apply for this scholarship, in a normal process, via normal procedures? The evidence suggests that she didn’t, and the Whitehouse Institute has not provided any that would shed further light on the scholarship’s merit. After all, there was no scholarship advertised, and the Whitehouse Institute website still maintains that “Whitehouse does not currently offer scholarships to gain a place into the Bachelor of Design.”

Nor do the academic governors appear to have played any part in the single interview with Leanne Whitehouse that led to Frances Abbott’s scholarship offer. How much did Whitehouse’s Academic Board have to do with this matter? Did they even know? Is it time for the chair of the Academic Board, Andrew Gonczi, to explain what, if any, role he played?

This background matters when we turn to the role of Freya Newman, the purported whistleblower whose actions led to the public disclosure of Frances Abbott’s subsidised education.

Newman, a court heard last week, found out about the secret scholarship from overhearing a conversation amongst more senior Whitehouse staff. She then used another staff member’s login and password to access the Whitehouse’s student database.

As a result of her reported actions, Freya Newman has suffered significant consequences. The New South Wales Police investigated and then charged her with accessing restricted information on a computer.

According to her lawyer Tony Payne, Newman was motivated “by a sense of injustice”. Newman accessed the database only to verify the scholarship, and did not disclose the details of any other student. She has written a formal apology to Frances Abbott and has expressed remorse for the damage to Abbott’s reputation.

Newman will be sentenced next month. The prosecution is pushing for a criminal conviction to be recorded against the 21-year old.

The most salient question in the Freya Newman affair is why she was ever charged in the first place. While she has admitted her crime, Newman’s actions were manifestly in the public interest.

The public interest in Frances Abbott’s scholarship is two-fold.

In the first instance, the actions of the Whitehouse Institute appear, on its own rules, to be improper. The Whitehouse Institute is a beneficiary of public subsidy through FEE-HELP and is the subject of federal education law. The college’s actions in by-passing its own stated policy on scholarships have never been adequately explained, and its bluff denials of any wrong-doing are not credible.

The broader public interest of the Frances Abbott scholarship goes to lobbying, and the many and varied ways that private interests seek to influence politicians and public officials.

New Matilda has uncovered clear evidence that the Whitehouse Institute pursued Frances Abbott with a scholarship offer. A source inside the Whitehouse Institute told New Matilda that “Leanne got the Chairman of the Board [Les Taylor] to tell [Frances Abbott] she had the offer of a scholarship.”

It is all too clear why a private college would wish to curry favour with the Prime Minister’s daughter.

Australian higher education is currently experiencing the biggest policy shake-up in a generation. The Abbott government’s proposed changes, which break a stated 2013 election promise, will deregulate university fees and open up the higher education system to private providers like the Whitehouse Institute.

Private colleges stand to gain hundreds of millions should Christopher Pyne’s legislative changes to higher education pass the Parliament.

And we have evidence that Frances Abbott was used as a bargaining chip to lobby the Abbott government about higher education policy reform. Tony Abbott has attended two separate functions at the Whitehouse Institute, including the now-notorious December 2013 gala in which college owner Leanne Whitehouse made pointed remarks about the need to reduce TEQSA red-tape. “And yes, I am looking at you, Prime Minister,” sources say Whitehouse said.

The Abbott government slashed funding to TEQSA, the tertiary regulator, in the budget in May.

The comparison with the UQ affair is stark. There, the person who eventually blew the whistle, academic registrar Maureen Bowen, has not faced official or legal sanction. Nor have either of the two senior academics that accessed university databases to check on Ms Greenfield’s entrance scores. Indeed, no-one involved in the UQ admissions scandal has faced any charge of misconduct at all, either from the university or under Queensland law.

Why did Maureen Bowen, Paul Greenfield and Michael Keniger at the University of Queensland escape without even a university misconduct charge, while Freya Newman was charged with a criminal offence?

The answer is inescapable: Newman is being punished for embarrassing the powerful. As Crikey pointed out in an editorial last week, “in our minds, there is also no doubt that if Frances Abbott were not the Prime Minister’s daughter, Newman would not be in court today, facing jail for her actions.”

Nothing could better highlight the pressing need to protect whistleblowers. If Freya Newman had been working at a public university, she may well have been protected from legal repercussions by whistleblower protection laws. Because she was at a private college, she enjoyed no protection.

Instead, a young woman’s life has been upended, her future prospects seriously harmed, simply because she did the right thing.

Meanwhile, Frances Abbott continues to work for the Whitehouse Institute, and Whitehouse officials who made the decision to give her the scholarship have suffered no repercussions.

To international observers, what’s happened is all too obvious: a whistleblower has been punished, while others have got off scot-free.

The International Business Times ran a story last week that summed it up: “It Doesn’t Pay To Be A Whistleblower In Australia,” ran the headline, “Especially If Subject Of Expose Is PM’s Daughter.”

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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