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Inclusion of staff and students in University governance

The Vice-Chancellor of the University of New South Wales has reportedly submitted a reform plan to limit the definition of ‘University Community’, which could minimise student and staff participation on major decisions.

The University’s President and Vice-Chancellor, Fred Hilmer, is said to have signed the report proposing that the term ‘university community’ encompasses only the governing body, excluding the opinion of students, staff and alumni from future changes.

An Elected Fellow at the University of Sydney, Dr Michael Coleman, said that under the new legislation, the Senate could change the number of members appointed to the council and not have to consult the university community.
“There’s a blanket thing in there saying the university community will be defined as just the governing body and there’s no need to consult more widely if you want to change the composition of the university council.”
The changes in legislation could also reduce the numbers in university councils, according to Dr Coleman.

The Vice-Chancellor’ office Communications Director denied that such changes have been proposed.

“There is no proposal in the NSW VCC discussion paper to exclude students from participation in university governance. Elected students and staff would remain as members of University Councils, which are the bodies responsible for university governance.

“University Councils include a number of external members who are not staff or students. As I understand it, the proposal is aimed at ensuring that University Councils are not excluded from the definition of university community for the purposes of the legislation.”

But Dr. Coleman has argued that, though the legislation will include student representatives,

“in future that could be very carefully done so that the student representative be restricted to somebody who wouldn’t disagree with them.”

“The way for any of that to be submitted to scrutiny is when any of those changes are posed within the University, it goes out to the university community, so that students, staff, alumni, etc, will have a chance to disagree.”

The politics of student involvement

Since the introduction by the Howard government of Voluntary Student Unionism, the extent of student involvement in University services and changes has been questioned, and the Student Representative Council’s influence has arguably diminished.

President of the SRC at UNSW, Osman Faruqi, told Tharunka that “The SRC has a strong position on ensuring that students, as well as the wider university community, have a genuine role in decision making at this university.

“While students do currently sit on a number of boards and committees, engagement and partnership with students should go far beyond this kind of consultation. Reports that the university administration are seeking to remove the positions of elected student and staff representatives from the governing body of UNSW – University Council, are very concerning.”

An independent survey published in Tharunka last month showed that while a strong majority agreed that student unions are often political, most partakers also voted for the reintroduction of a mandatory student services fee.

“Student engagement doesn’t end with having one or two students on a committee”, Mr Faruqi added, “it’s about making sure that you take on board the feedback of students at all levels of the university and can quickly respond to student concerns.”

The Council currently includes four members of academic staff, one undergraduate and one postgraduate student, per the University of New South Wales Act of 1989.

“They may say it makes no difference to the students, but the truth is that all the things related to how a student qualifies for election could be changed to something that in effect disenfranchises people who would otherwise have a legitimate expectation of getting onto a governing council,” Dr Coleman added.
“It’s a total misunderstanding of how universities run. The whole point of having a community of educated people is that you do take account of what that broader community thinks rather than only a selected group.
What is of concern to student representation, Dr Coleman has suggested, is that changes in council could include more people with a background in business and law, but who aren’t necessary aware of what happens at University.
“Though they may be well-meaning for the University, the problem is that quite often they don’t know what is going on within. These people, unfortunately, often represent just one side of the equation.”
Henar Perales