A review commissioned after widespread outrage over the University of Wollongong’s acceptance of a thesis from anti-vaccination activist Dr Judy Wilyman has found no “significant policy gaps” in how the institution accepts and awards PhDs.
However, UOW staff have highlighted a number of problems with the institution’s research students, saying “admissions decision making seems to be arbitrary” and highlighting that there are a “limited number of supervisors in some fields”.
Dr Wilyman’s thesis, submitted to the Faculty of Law, Humanities and Arts, claimed the World Health Organisation and pharmaceutical industry had been involved in a global conspiracy to push immunisation.
A number of medical researchers and public health advocates slammed the thesis, while a petition saying UOW’s acceptance demonstrated an “anti-scientific culture” and was “profoundly dangerous to public health” gathered more than 2000 signatures. They also highlighted that her supervisors and examiners had expertise in social sciences, rather than clinical science.
Vice Chancellor Paul Wellings commissioned a review into the “higher degree research student lifecycle”, with results published this week.
The 56-page review does not mention Dr Wilyman’s thesis or set out to find out whether there was any failure of process in her case.
“Themes” taken from from 132 staff responses to questions about PhD admissions said guidelines were “difficult to follow and need to be streamlined”. They believed recruitment should focus on “quality over quantity”.
Additionally, they said university’s policies and practice to train and support research student supervisers were “difficult to navigate” but had “improved recently”, and said more training was required. They also said students’ supervisors were “being allocated based on workload not expertise”.
Despite the list of criticisms, reviewers “did not uncover any significant policy gaps”, their report said.
A five member working group of internal and external members measured the university against four other universities. It found the current research student admissions process to be “comparable to those of the benchmarked institutions and its policy positions to be at least as stringent as, or in some cases more stringent than, the benchmarked universities”
The report recommended policy guidelines be more clearly written and regularly updated. It also recommended more training for supervisors, more rigorous annual reporting and streamlined administration.
Prof Wellings said he was “pleased that our standards have been shown to be as high, or higher, than the benchmarked universities”.
“UOW is committed to continual improvement,” Professor Wellings said. “This review has identified positive improvements we can make to how we manage higher degree research and we will implement all recommendations.”
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