A struggle last year between the chancellor and vice-chancellor at Australia’s oldest regional university, the University of New England, saw a NSW parliamentary inquiry established to identify the broader, or more systemic, problems encountered by universities. The inquiry appeared to be interested to look at the general problems of universities as evidenced by governance problems.
That all sounds good, doesn’t it? So what did this bunny (your correspondent) do? He made a submission. Unfortunately — and unfortunately is a very kind word — the submission was gutted, sections of it having been deemed by the parliamentary committee to fall into the category of “adverse mention”.
I was informed by a person assisting the committee that if my “comments were to be published in another context that was not protected by parliamentary privilege, they may constitute defamation”. And here I was, thinking that one of the purposes of parliamentary inquiries and of (judicious use of) parliamentary privilege is to get important matters of public interest into the public realm without having to fear the action of litigious (and exceedingly wealthy) individuals.
Proceeding on the basis that, as long as people making submissions did not republish or repeat their views in a place unprotected by parliamentary privilege, they would receive legal protection, I offered what I thought was a thoughtful set of points to the inquiry. I did so knowing that, even though there were assurances about legal protection, social ostracism, or the risk that my judgement might be called into question, was another matter. That is the risk one bears. Little did I expect that the NSW parliamentary committee would adopt a view that my citing of some events was so salacious that it would feel the need to omit these examples from the public version of the submission.
The gist of the submission is that the control freakery that besets Australia’s universities (along with some other public institutions) is a natural but unacceptable consequence of two decades of an encroaching managerialism and under-funding, and that UNE’s governance problems are not behind it.
In order to support this point of view some illustrations were given. Several of them, omitted by the committee, are already in the public realm.
Ironically, at least one example concerns the ridiculous level of secrecy cemented around New England’s governing body. I illustrated this point by referring to the refusal of UNE’s Council, in April 2004, to consider the issue of the charging of fees to domestic undergraduate students in an open session of its meeting. That is, a matter of self-evident public interest was seen as so unmentionable that it was moved to confidential session.
It can only be concluded that the purpose of this practice is to place maximum pressure on elected members of the governing body to vote with the appointed members. In fact, after having insisted that no one could divulge the details of confidential sessions, the Council then stood by and allowed the chancellor, John Cassidy, to reveal the vote on the student fees decision and to imply at least a criticism of those who did not vote with the majority.
A much more serious instance of secrecy, in May 2007, still needs to see the light of day — but the parliamentary committee is preventing this. Why? One possible reason is that the committee is too sensitive to the point of view of a prominent parliamentarian who was and is a member of the Council — indeed is now its present chancellor, Richard Torbay. Whatever the reason, the committee’s decision forfeits a substantial opportunity to expose a systemic weakness in university governance.