ACT News

Court bans varsity from sacking academic who worked as a consultant

The Federal Court has temporarily forbidden Canberra University from sacking an academic who worked as a consultant on the side without its permission.

Felicia Zhang wants the court to find the university has breached the Fair Work Act in sacking her, order it to give her job back, and pay her compensation, for shock, distress and humiliation.

The case is due to be heard in April, and a judge installed interim orders that stop university from sacking her in the meantime.

Court papers, filed on her behalf by Nicholas Dibb Solicitors, said Ms Zhang had been offered consultant work - which included face-to-face teaching - with a training company on top of her Canberra University work in June 2014.

She asked the university if it would be interested, but its costing for the job was considered too expensive.

Ms Zhang then asked UC if she could take on the work privately, but did not hear back from faculty management.


Ms Zhang assumed the lack of feedback meant there had been no issue and took on the contract.

The university discovered her agreement in July and directed her to stop.

Ms Zhang followed orders but lodged a complaint to human resources.

She then had some of her duties, including teaching, reassigned to another staff member.

In December, a committee found Felicia Zhang's involvement with the training company had been misconduct.

But the committee did not classify it as serious misconduct, finding the wrongdoing to be at the "lower end of the scale".

According to the enterprise bargaining agreement university staff can only be sacked for serious misconduct.

But, in January, Acting Vice-Chancellor Professor Nicholas Klomp overruled the committee's finding and sacked Ms Zhang for serious misconduct.

Ms Zhang launched legal action to have the decision overturned, arguing the termination had been a breach of the Fair Work Act.

Court documents said Ms Zhang held concerns that damages the court could award would not be an adequate remedy as the harm caused to her international scholarly reputation in Chinese language pedagogy and literature could not be quantified.

"Further, in Chinese culture, it is a shameful matter if my employment was terminated for serious misconduct," the statement of claim said.

"It would also have the effect that no other tertiary institution in Australia would engage me due to the damage to my scholarly reputation."

During a directions hearing before Justice Steven Rares last week, the academic's lawyers said she thought she had permission to undertake the work by the university's business manager.

The barrister told the court Ms Zhang - who has worked at the tertiary institution for about 15 years - believed the university's behaviour had been motivated by a desire to remove her without paying her a significant redundancy.

But the UC foreshadowed a counterclaim against Ms Zhang, although their counsel said his client wanted the matter resolved as soon as possible.

Justice imposed orders that prevented the UC from terminating Ms Zhang's employment.

The judge said he viewed the matter as a "straight contract case", ordered the parties attend mediation, and scheduled the case for hearing in April.