The University of Sydney has been accused of encouraging unethical behaviour by issuing students an assignment to plant fake articles in the University of NSW’s student newspaper Tharunka.

The group assignment — titled “Prank Tharunka” — was given to undergraduate students in the Media Politics subject, run by the Department of Government and International Relations. The assignment requires students to “design and execute a false story that you attempt to get published in the UNSW student newspaper” and is worth 25% of their final grade.

Joshua Tassell, one of the students given the task this semester, told Crikey he believed the assignment was “utterly immoral”: “For someone who’d one day want to go into journalism I have a major ethical problem with trying to print lies. I don’t see the point. I honestly don’t think it taught us much at all except terrible habits.”

Tassell says he is “completely mystified” how the assignment, due to be handed in on May 16, was approved by the University of Sydney. He also queries why Tharunka had been targeted, rather than, say, the University of Sydney’s student publication Honi Soit.

The University of Sydney’s academic dishonesty policy — reproduced in the Media Politics subject outline — states:

“The University requires students to act honestly, ethically and with integrity in their dealings with the University, its members, members of the public and others.”

Lily Ray, one of Tharunka‘s editors, describes the assignment as “mean-spirited” and “immature”. “I think it’s really irresponsible — especially as many students in that class may want to be journalists in the future and this would be on file,” she said. “We’re a newspaper that doesn’t have a lot of resources. It’s frustrating and it’s taken up a lot of time.”

Ray says she became suspicious when the paper — which publishes occasional pieces by non-UNSW students — received an unusually high number of unsolicited pieces. University of Sydney students, uncomfortable about the assignment, then tipped her off about the prank.

While some of the prank pitches weren’t up to publication standard — including one on how to make your own rainbow crossing — Tharunka had planned to run a phony story on fare evasion and was considering another on s-xual harassment at universities.

“Luckily we caught it in time, but it could have been humiliating for us,” Ray said.

University of Sydney lecturer Peter Chen, who co-ordinates the Media Politics subject, told Crikey he saw no problem with the assignment.

“It is a practical, research-oriented task with a sound pedagogic basis,” he said. “Students aren’t being encouraged to be deceptive — they’re encouraged to analyse the techniques of public relations that are endemic in our society.”

Another group was tasked with exploring the issue of “clicktivism” by creating an online campaign for a fictitious cause. Chen says such assignments offer students a refreshing change to dry academic essays and show universities can be grounded in the real world. He adds he did not expect his students to succeed in getting the fake articles into print.

“This is not a dangerous activity — we’re not cutting people’s organs out of their stomachs,” he said. “Most of the assignments set by my academic colleagues may be dead boring … That’s the only interesting thing about [this task].”