A would-be Psychology Honours student has been left out of a program and out of pocket after ANU “mislaid” her application. Richa Sharma took the university to the Commonwealth Ombudsman to get answers in what has ultimately become a seven month ordeal. Sharma has received an apology from the University, but ANU declined to tell Observer what measures it is taking to prevent such an issue arising again.
Sharma graduated from ANU with a Bachelor of Science (Psychology) at the end of 2017. She applied for Honours, but did not receive a rejection or acceptance notice in early December like other applicants. Sharma told Observer that she contacted the University many times and was told on 13 December that a staff member would follow up. However, it was not until Sharma visited Student Central on 8 January that she was informed that her application had been unsuccessful.
The rejection notice did not tell Sharma that she had the right to appeal. Indeed, Sharma told Observer that a staff member told her the decision was final and there was nothing further she could do. When Sharma eventually found out about the appeals process, she lodged an appeal with the help of the Dean of Students. This was denied as it was lodged more than 20 working days after her rejection. She then lodged a ‘Stage 2’ appeal – one based on procedural grounds – with help from ANUSA, but this was once again rejected.
In April, Sharma then involved the Commonwealth Ombudsman, a body which investigates complaints of unfair treatment by government agencies and selected other organisations – including ANU. She told Observer that despite a lack of assistance from the Dean of Students or ANUSA at this final stage, the process was relatively accessible. She was assigned an agent to whom she sent all of her documentation, and they then contacted the University to investigate. She received the final Ombudsman’s report in early July.
Through the course of her enquiries, Sharma was given a number of different reasons for her rejection. ANU admissions initially told her initially told it was “due to a lack of supervision and/or resources availability”. She then made further enquiries, as she believed her grade average was higher than that of others who had been accepted, and therefore she should have been given one of the limited number of places. Sharma was then told by a Research School of Psychology staff member that her marks while she was on exchange had brought down her average. Sharma told Observer she had been assured before going on exchange that her actual grades while on exchange would not count for her Grade Point Average, and it would simply be a matter of passing.
However, the Ombudsman ultimately found that Sharma’s rejection was due to a University mistake. Her application had, in fact, been “mislaid”, and then once it was discovered, it was “refused due to supervisor availability”. “As a result of our investigation it was revealed that had your application been included in the initial ranking process it is likely that you would have received an offer for Semester 1 2018,” the Ombudsman’s report reads. The report also confirms that “courses completed while on exchange are not used in the calculation of academic merit”, contrary to what Sharma was told.
Sharma told Observer that she has been offered a place in the Honours program for Semester 2, and received an apology letter from Joint Colleges of Science Deputy Dean (Education) Anna Cowan. However, Sharma has been taking a course at Monash University, and has been informed that she will probably not be able to transfer the credit to ANU. She also told Observer that she would feel uncomfortable taking up the position due to the “soured relationship” and “poor student-teacher support” she has experienced from the Research School of Psychology.
“ANU’s mishandling of my application has cost me time, money, peace of mind, and caused a lot of mental anguish,” Sharma told Observer. “I’ve lost job and educational opportunities that won’t be offered again because of this … My mental health, private and professional relationships have suffered,” she said. Sharma had been elected as Co-President of the ANU Psychology Society last year, and decided to continue with this position despite not being a student. She told Observer this took a personal toll on her, but she still wanted to help the Society as much as she could. Sharma was unable to see her usual counsellor at the ANU Counselling Centre throughout the process as she was no longer a student.
Sharma encouraged students to “fight for [their] rights” if faced with similar issues. “You have the right to appeal … Utilise free services like the Commonwealth Ombudsman if you have to. As soon as a case goes haywire, date and write everything down,” she said.
ANUSA President Eleanor Kay would not discuss specifics of Sharma’s case due to confidentiality, but emphasised that “ANUSA is committed to working with students who have any advocacy needs within the university”. She encouraged students to contact ANUSA’s Student Assistance Unit if they are having issues.
The University declined to answer a number of questions that Observer put to it, citing “privacy and confidentiality concerns”. These questions included: ‘How could an application be misplaced?’, ‘Do exchange grades indeed count when applying for Honours?’, and ‘What processes is ANU putting in place to ensure such a issues do not arise again?’. “We are committed to a culture of continuous improvement and constantly review our standard procedures and approaches, based on the experiences and feedback of our community,” the University spokesperson said.
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