October 25, 2016

Fear and loathing on campus: bullying at Irish universities

Is bullying and harassment rife at Irish universities? These institutions are spending millions of euro on legal fees to deal with allegations by staff of bullying, harassment and discrimination, particularly on gender grounds.

A series of high-profile legal cases in recent years has highlighted tension bubbling up across a number of campuses – and many more are in the pipeline.

All of this comes at a time when the seven university presidents are urging greater state investment and the introduction of an income-contingent student-loan scheme.

So what’s going on behind the walls of our higher education institutions? Records released under the Freedom of Information Act show that dozens of lecturers and other staff members have made complaints about bullying, harassment and discrimination across Ireland’s seven universities in recent years.

There is a heavy financial toll. Ireland’s universities paid out more than €3.3 million in legal fees involving staff between 2010 and 2015, a threefold increase in the space of five years.

A significant amount of this money was spent on allegations of bullying, harassment and discrimination, particularly on gender grounds. Colleges often hire external investigators to deal with such complaints.

The Teachers’ Union of Ireland, which represents lecturers at institutes of technology, conducted a survey of more than 1,100 members in recent times to help measure scale of the problem. The results surprised some seasoned union officials: almost 30 per cent of respondents said they are always, often or sometimes bullied at work.

A further 69 per cent said there is always, often or sometimes friction between colleagues at work.

Managers lacking training

Joan Donegan, of the Irish Federation of University Teachers, says it is dealing with fresh allegations of bullying and harassment every month of the year.

“If management are not trained on how to deal with bullying and harassment cases, they can – without realising it – cause more harm. In-house training for HR and support staff is essential and more cost- effective,” she says. “Investment in a qualified external mediator, although expensive, is worthwhile if staff are not trained. Spending money on consultants to conduct investigations is very expensive, and the outcome from such processes is rarely helpful in healing the hurt between the parties.”


Bullying concerns - Prof Hisham Elkadi - University of Salford

Staff at School of Built Environment, University of Salford are increasingly concerned by bullying and controlling behaviour of Dean SOBE, Hisham Elkadi. Staff morale is very low since he joined the school in August 2014, after being fired from Deakin University on bullying accusations (see stories in National press below)(. There is dire need of a third party audit of staff grievances and introduction of remedial measures to ensure staff well-being. Concerns about Dean Prof Hisham Elkadi’s attitude are wide ranging including:

  •     Bullying and harassment of staff,
  •     Humiliating staff in meetings,
  •     Discrimination and noticeably favoring staff over others,
  •     Long absences from office without informing staff,
  •     Lack of transparency in use of school funds,
  •     Harassment of individuals who raise any objection to his plans or those who he perceives as threat,
  •  Micro management and total control of school affairs without due consultation

SOBE staff perceive prevailing school culture to be demoralising and demotivating, with record numbers having left the school or considering leaving. Need for independent review to assess scale of dissatisfaction is particularly required given Professor Hisham has faced serious allegations of bullying, at his previous workplace, as reported widely in the international media. At Deakin University, he faced bullying allegations and subsequently brought Federal Court Action against his previous employer. 

It would seem that the Prof. has a certain history: