The proposed restructure of the University of Sydney Senate has caused much controversy recently. Sydney University intends to reduce the size of the Senate from 22 to 15 members, and reduce the role for alumni and elected academic staff representatives.
University governance usually doesn’t attract great public attention, but it is a bit different when outcry comes from some high-powered and highly-respected Australians.
Why does this matter?
Most people accept that Australian public universities should work for the common good, not to further the interest of either individual academics or institutions, so getting the governance of universities right, and ensuring the right mix of skills and experiences is important.
A university council (sometimes called a senate) is not quite a corporate board for the university, but a lot like one. It provides oversight not management, and has a clearly defined role in governance of the university, rather than in its day-to-day operation.
Councils matter to the character and success of a university. They operate a lot like a corporate or non profit board does but differ because a university is a body corporate and politic, which most people would say is a good thing, but it is also where the trouble starts.
How university councils work
University councils should operate in the manner that is best able to advance the university. Like stopping the management being corrupt and just selling degrees, as sometimes happens in other places around the globe.
A council is headed by a Chancellor who has a critical say in who the next vice-chancellor is and chairs meetings and key committees.
But how councils should best ensure the interests of students, academics and the public alike is more contentious. Often at issue is who should be on the council and how they get there.
Who can be a member?
Australian public universities are governed by state acts of parliament, or commonwealth legislation in the case of the ANU. Most university councils are required to have members with the expertise necessary to make the council effective, such as appointing members with a background working in the university sector or someone with strong financial skills to stop the place going broke.
Emphasising the role of expertise is sometimes argued to be seeing members of the council as trustees. That is, they are charged with looking after the interests of the university as a whole through their role on council.
But historically most councils also have (or had) members appointed because they are staff, students or alumni of the institution.
These councillors are often elected by their constituent groups and are sometimes seen to primarily represent their interests. In this they are acting as delegates with a potentially narrow set of concerns matching those of the people they represent.
It is this tension between the role of being a representative for a narrow group and acting for the whole university that is one reason why people argue for smaller, expertise driven councils.
Yet there is a strong argument for including the input of staff, students and to an extent alumni in council deliberations. Often they are the people with the best expertise and it broadens the viewpoint available and that too is a good thing.
But it does raise the question - do we need student and staff representatives to ensure their input to the council? This is not an easy question to answer, but one we must.
The last thing public universities need is a council being a place to fight battles that ultimately do little for the benefit for all staff, students and public that form the university community.