A toxic culture of bullying and intimidation has been exposed by staff at one of Queensland’s largest universities in an open letter to the chancellor.
A toxic culture of bullying and intimidation has been exposed by staff at one of Queensland’s largest universities in an open letter to the chancellor.

‘Toxic culture’: Bullying accusations at major university

A toxic culture of bullying and intimidation has been exposed by staff at one of Queensland's largest universities.

An open letter to Queensland University of Technology chancellor Xiaoling Liu details workers' fears, with staff telling The Courier-Mail they are routinely singled out and humiliated in meetings, spoken over in front of peers, micromanaged despite years of experience and indiscriminately forced back to campus while others continue to work from home.

There is an "increasingly toxic culture that we are experiencing on a daily basis at QUT", the letter stated.




QUT chancellor Xiaoling Liu.
QUT chancellor Xiaoling Liu.


"QUT once valued freedom of speech, diversity of thought and empowerment of teams and individuals.

"That has now been replaced with a workplace where we are scared to speak up, let alone raise any issues for fear we will lose our jobs."

The letter also said recent renovations featuring marble and private bathrooms demonstrated an "overt display of power ... while money is reduced in areas where it is actually needed".

At the same time, the university axed 174 positions - but The Courier-Mail understands about 1500 contracts were also not renewed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

One staff member told The Courier-Mail she was frequently "snapped at and spoken down to" by her senior leaders, leaving her feeling intimidated and incompetent at her job despite her many years of experience.

"My (superior) doesn't hesitate in raising (their) voice at me, which can be very stressful not to mention unprofessional," she said.

"I know what I'm doing but I don't feel trusted to do my job, I'm micromanaged and frankly, often made to feel like an idiot in front of my colleagues."

A second long-serving staff member described "feeling pressured" by their superiors into returning to work on campus despite their hesitations due to the ongoing COVID-19 risks.

"I just did what I was told, because so many people were losing their jobs - I couldn't afford to be one of them," she said.

Another staffer blasted the university as having an "ivory tower" approach to management and completely "disconnected from the on-the-ground reality".

"The reality is that most staff have lost all faith in the university" they said.

The QUT Chancellery.
The QUT Chancellery.




National Tertiary Education Union Queensland secretary Michael McNally said systemic issues of bullying and harassment were rife across the university sector.

"These authoritarian management structures are reinforced by (the executive) salaries," he said. "It's a very 'do what I say' culture, and that culture comes from the top."

"Universities are full of highly educated professional staff, and they are treated like drones."

QUT, which educates more than 52,000 students each year and  employs 12,000 staff, is run by vice-chancellor Margaret Sheil, who was the highest paid Queensland university VC in 2020 with a package worth at least $1.2m.

Dr Liu said she had now been made aware of the allegations in the letter and was "engaging with management to better understand the concerns and to address them".

The university also defended the construction of the high-end bathroom facilities.

Professor Margaret Sheil. Picture: Glenn Hunt/The Australian
Professor Margaret Sheil. Picture: Glenn Hunt/The Australian

Professor Sheil said one private bathroom plus an end-of-trip facility had been added during renovations to the heritage-listed Chancellery building, as were some marble finishes in public spaces as recommended by heritage architects.

She said the building works commenced before the start of COVID-19 pandemic and had been budgeted for some years.

"When staff raise concerns, we investigate them and address them utilising the processes for resolution set out in its Manual of Policies and Procedures, as appropriate," Professor Sheil told The Courier-Mail.

She said even though 174 positions had been axed at the height of the pandemic, the university also created 102 new roles in 2020.

"Not all positions in the new structure have been filled because of an agreed process to allow QUT staff on short-term or ongoing contracts to apply for new positions before advertising roles externally," she said.

Professor Sheil did not address how many contracts had not been renewed, but said there was "a number of reasons that contracts have ended" including contracts coming to a natural end, completion of projects and staff returning from parental leave.

Originally published as 'Toxic culture': Bullying accusations at major Qld uni