The UNSW Council Explained

By Jack Zhou

The spotlight has recently turned on the UNSW Council student elections. Many students have been wondering: what exactly is the Council? Is it like the SRC? Do they have any power at all? This article will hopefully address some key questions.

The UNSW Council

UNSW, like any other university, is run by a governing body. Power ranges from the very top with Chancellor all the way to the faculty departments.

It’s also important to distinguish the Council from the other prominent institution with elected student representatives, the SRC. The Council is actually the ‘governing authority’ of the University itself, while the SRC directly liaises with the uni and provides support and advocacy through its collectives.

The Council was established and is governed under the University of New South Wales Act 1989 (yes, the uni is run by an Act of Parliament). There are also further provisions in the University of New South Wales By-law 2005, and the University of New South Wales Rules.

Who’s in the Council?

The numbers in the Council may change but there can be no less than 11 members. In 2019, there were 15 members, including the Vice-Chancellor Ian Jacobs. Some are appointed by the Minister for Skills and Tertiary Education, others are appointed by the Council itself.

Only five members are elected: two from academic staff, one from non-academic staff, one from postgraduates, and one from undergraduates.

What does the Council do?

Essentially, the Council is an executive committee that approves all the major decisions of UNSW. They are ultimately in charge of everything from financial to academic to student affairs. Here is a list of some important functions:

  • The Council appoints the Chancellor.            
  • The Council can acquire property and lease it out (to Colleges, for example).
  • The Council runs the commercial activities of the University (i.e. awarding contracts, entering into joint ventures, establishing trusts).
  • The Council approves mission, strategic, and business plans as well as annual budgets. 

Naturally, this is a lot of power: the largest and most long-term decisions rest in its hands. The reality is that only a small section of the Council (generally the Vice-Chancellor) initiate policies and then notify the other members about it in an email.

All members are obligated to attend Council meetings. This is the most important part of a councillor’s role: it is during these meetings where they can raise concerns, draw attention onto particular issues, or to let the voices of who they’re representing be heard. All its agendas and minutes are available on the Governance website.

Council elections

The election for 2020’s elected councillors opened on 22 June and will close on Monday 29 June. Many of us will be voting in the Undergraduate section.

Any eligible UNSW student can nominate themselves (provided that they are still a student by the close of the nomination date). Student nominees are entitled to campaign. Most just write a 150-word statement on the electronic voting page. There are also campaign guidelines that prohibit the pressuring of voters and unauthorised use of UNSW materials. 

However, all nominees (as well as us) will be bound by the Student’s Code of Conduct. This includes the duty to ‘observe standards of equity and respect in dealing with every member of the UNSW community.’ Moreover, the University itself has the responsibility to ensure that students ‘are treated equitably, free from all forms of unlawful discrimination and harassment, including sexual harassment.’ On top of that, UNSW’s Anti-Racism Policy provides that the University ‘has a responsibility to ensure that employees, including those working on campuses as external contractors, and students are made aware of what constitutes acceptable standards of behaviour within the University.’

What do the student councillors say?

Given the enormous power and composition of the Council, what’s it actually like to be inside the room? The dynamics are unusual, with highly senior members with decades of experience to potentially second year students. Why do our student councillors matter then? Because they are elected there to represent the student body for all the major decisions taken by UNSW.

In a statement to Tharunka, Ike Schwartz, the undergraduate councillor elected in 2018, has described what a councillor should be. Shwartz said,

“It’s essential that the undergraduate student representative on council is outspoken and principled, as there is only one to represent tens of thousands of students.

The student rep has to be trustworthy and accessible to the student body, because much of the information dealt with by the council is confidential and inaccessible to the vast majority of students.”

In May 2020, members of the Council successfully helped to push for UNSW’s fossil fuel divestment scheme. Students should and do have a say in how their university is run. It’s very possible for student councillors to play a substantive role in the most important decisions of UNSW. That’s why student representatives form a part of the Council and why it’s been enshrined by law.

Is it worth it?

Despite all this, many aren’t sure whether getting on the Council serves any good. Many, with their distaste for student politics, lump it together with the SRC. It’s true that it’s not uncommon for candidates to try to run for both. Related to this is the strong feeling among students that the Council election is filled with ambitious and opportunistic wannabe politicians, looking to gild their CVs.

Others say that the Council is just a rubber stamp for whatever the senior executives propose. That would be the Council functioning at its worst. It’s entirely legitimately to point out ways to improve the system: transparency, accountability, and partisanship are still big questions. Ultimately, having a student voice in perhaps the most powerful body at UNSW is still very consequential with enormous impact on our day-to-day lives as UNSW students.

Useful links:

UNSW Announces Fossil Fuel Divestment Scheme

UNSW Current Students: 2020 Council Elections

Guidelines for Campaigning

Student Code of Conduct

UNSW Anti-Racism Policy

Council page on UNSW Governance (includes past agendas and minutes)

Current Council members from 1 Jan 2020

University of New South Wales Act 1989

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