Should staff, students and alumni get a say in the governance of a modern university?

That’s the question raised by the University of Sydney’s latest move to corporatise itself. The changes, which will reduce the number of positions on its governing board — quaintly called a senate — were rammed through just before Christmas. All alumni-elected senate positions have been abolished. The university will also restructure its faculties, amalgamating various departments and reducing the number of faculties from 16 to six.

The University of Sydney’s chancellor, Belinda Hutchinson, put it this way, in an email to staff:

“This change in composition reflects contemporary governance practice and allows Senate to have greater access to the range and diversity of skills needed to respond to current and future opportunities and challenges in the sector.”

What this means, in practice, is that the University of Sydney’s senate will become less representative of the interests of staff, students and alumni, and more beholden to the existing board and management. That pointed phrase, “range and diversity of skills”, is a backhanded attack on the skills of the senate’s current elected members — some of whom have often disagreed with the university’s direction under vice-chancellor Michael Spence.

This is just the latest in a series of moves by universities nationwide to streamline their legacy governance arrangements. These regulations are often complex; many universities are legally established in the various states and territories and are governed by state legislation. But the federal government is the key funder, as well as the sole source of education loans to students and the regulator of tertiary quality. 

The debate matters because universities are not, after all, corporations. They are public institutions, charged with a social mission, and they depend on public funding for approximately half their revenue.

No one is denying that the modern university is a large and complex organisation. In 2014, the University of Sydney taught 51,000 students from 145 nations. It brought in nearly $1.9 billion of revenue, for a tidy surplus of $161 million. Teaching accounted for less than half this revenue, at $759 million. Research grants and consultancies totalled $530 million, while “income from private sources” was another $300 million. If you looked only at the annual accounts, you’d conclude that the University of Sydney was a large and healthy institution.

But the complexity of the environment is not, on the face of things, a reason to corporatise university boards. You could equally argue that participatory democracy is a better way to access the “range and diversity of skills” the university needs — in that it is far more likely to elect individuals from outside the clubby world of Australia’s corporate elites.

Moreover, the reduction in staff representation on the governing senate comes at a strategic juncture for the university, as it moves into its next round of enterprise bargaining. The last negotiation, ending in 2012, sparked a bitter dispute between staff and management.

Universities are often portrayed by outsiders as havens of cardigan-wearing lefties, but academics and students are increasingly aware that this is no longer the case. Vice-chancellors and top university managers have been been getting steadily more professional and hard-headed in recent years, in many cases taking a highly partisan stance on public policy.

Spence is a good example: he was a vocal supporter of Christopher Pyne’s failed plans for fee deregulation, a policy that would have financially penalised future students wanting to study at his university. Spence took home more than $1 million in salary and bonuses in 2014.

Close observers of the University of Sydney changes have also noticed that one of the senate members voting for the reduction in elected positions is high-profile author and republican Peter FitzSimons. In a piquant irony, the new chair of the Australian Republican Movement has plumped for less democracy at the university of which he is a director.

It’s a symbol of a wider trend in university governance, in which older and arguably more representative structures are being abandoned for corporate models — with the clubby boards and well-paid top executives to match.

The argument for university boards to more closely resemble those of private-sector companies is based largely on the corporate nostrum of “contemporary governance practice” — a handy code for “fewer elected positions”.

According to the ASX, “best practice” for ASX-listed corporations is that “a majority of the board should be independent directors”. It’s hard to see how directors appointed by the current board will be more independent than directors elected by a vote of alumni and staff.

Student groups and staff unions are highly critical of the move. “The reduction of participatory democracy in the Senate’s composition is an appalling move and should be immediately rescinded,” postgraduate association vice-president Tom Greenwell told Honi Soit.

The National Tertiary Education Union’s Michael Thomson told the ABC that the “reforms” had been rammed through in a transparent attempt to cut costs and reduce staff and community input. “Clearly, the university management think by doing this that they will be able to reduce staff, particularly administrative staff,” Thomson said last week. “It’s not only democratic control, it’s also community input. Both are very, very concerning to us,” he said.

Senate member Andrew West, an experienced journalist and broadcaster, didn’t get to vote on the changes, as he was absent for the mid-December meeting. He has also since criticised the move.

“There should have been a six- to 12-month open consultation period with the entire alumni community about the future of their voting rights,” West told The Australian.

Former High Court judge Michael Kirby has also questioned the changes.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey