Politics & Society Blog

Duty of care requires an employer to reprimand and counsel bullies

In Wolters v The University of the Sunshine Coast [2013] QCA 228, a decision delivered by the Court of Appeal of the Queensland Supreme Court yesterday, their Honours unanimously decided that the University should (through its Vice Chancellor) have reprimanded and counselled an employee about the bullying of a more junior employee.

The case proved expensive for the University. Although the appellant Ms Wolters had a pyrrihc victory at first instance (a $100 nominal damages award), on appeal she was awarded $364,008.06 plus costs. 

The court found that "…to discharge its duty of care, the respondent, via Professor Thomas, ought to have reprimanded Mr Bradley" in connection with his earlier treatment of another employee. The judgement further found that "…it was more likely than not that had the respondent taken appropriate action to reprimand and counsel Mr Bradley, the incident with the appellant would not have occurred".

This case is not only an important one in clarifying the employer's duty of care in the workplace, it may also prove to be a pivotal one in the development of the emerging specialty of education law.

In this connection, if a university owes a duty of care to protect its employees, it almost certainly has a similar duty of care to its students. 

Thus the decision in this case suggests universities may also need to review the manner in which it responds to student complaints about the way they have been treated by their teacher.

Dual-degrees for the professions: USA VC finesses the Melbourne model

The 3-year bachelor degree followed by a 2-year masters for "professions" planned by USA VC David LLoyd has much to recommend it- http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/dual-degree-programs-emerge-for-teachers-therapists/story-e6frgcjx-1226700819975

Of course, graduates of these packages will reach the workforce 2 years later than those who opt for the basic undergraduate degree. However, it is likely that significant numbers who chose the dual-degree option will decide to scale back to part-time study when they articulate to the postgraduate element of their discipline.

That may give them the opportunity to gain valuable real world experience and mentoring, whilst enriching their postgraduate studies.

Unfortunately, the missing link for teachers continues to be the formalisation of their profession. Both universities and governments need to make this an urgent focus if Australia is to boost the quality of learning and teaching at all levels - primary, secondary and tertiary. 

A good start would be for the masters level courses to contain mandatory units in ethical, legal and professional responsibilities as a precursur to professional accreditation (as is required of accountants, lawyers, medicos and other established professions).

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