The University of Wollongong faces a possible governance showdown over senior executives’ efforts to impose a contentious Western civilisation course on a divided university community.
Wollongong has brushed off objections by its principal academic governance body, the academic senate, to vice-chancellor Paul Wellings’ use of a “fast-track” process to approve the course, which is funded by the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation.
The university said that the senate’s resolution had “no direct impact” on the partnership with the Ramsay Centre, and that the course would proceed as planned.
Wollongong has maintained that the executive has “acted within its delegations”, and that the academic senate’s objection does not warrant a reaction from the top governing body. “No further actions are arising for the university council on this matter,” the university told Times Higher Education.
But the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency is considering a complaint over the course’s approval, and governance experts said that they would be astounded if Wollongong’s council, which is due to meet on 12 April, did not intervene.
“The governing council must step in,” said a director of another university, who asked not to be named. “Anything that affects the wider reputation of the institution is a governance matter and therefore must involve the people at the top level of governance.”
Gareth Evans, chancellor of the Australian National University, told THE that university councils must get involved when “something manifestly goes wrong” and jeopardises an institution’s reputation.
In a broader interview, Professor Evans nominated ANU’s 2018 negotiations with the Ramsay Centre as an example of circumstances where councils were obliged to act. “It was entirely appropriate for the council and me as chancellor to engage, to rescue a situation which was becoming a major public relations problem,” he said.
The Ramsay Centre’s discussions with ANU and two other Australian universities have triggered fierce backlashes from staff and students. Wollongong sidestepped this problem by negotiating in secret, announcing the partnership as a fait accompli in mid-December.
It said the university council had “considered” the Ramsay agreement at its meeting on 15 February. THE understands that this involved observing a presentation about the partnership.
Meanwhile, the senate was denied an opportunity to vet the new course, with Professor Wellings personally approving it through the fast-track procedure in order to meet “tight deadlines” for a student recruitment publication.
Last month, university governance authority Hilary Winchester said the process may have breached regulatory guidelines. She told The Australian newspaper that the Higher Education Standards Framework required course approvals to be “overseen by peak institutional academic governance processes” and “applied consistently to all courses of study”.
Professor Winchester, a former chair of the academic board at two universities, said special approval by a university executive was unlikely to satisfy the standards. She also questioned whether Wollongong’s course approval procedures met the framework’s requirements.
The university said the new course, which is scheduled to start next year, could not wait for regular approval processes because of a February deadline for inclusion in the Universities Admissions Centre’s printed guidebook. THE understands that the deadline for listing courses on the UAC’s website, the principal recruitment avenue, is mid-June.
“This deadline for UAC is a furphy [a myth],” said Georgine Clarsen, Wollongong branch president of the National Tertiary Education Union. “The university is plucking at straws to give vaguely plausible reasons.”
She said the use of the fast-track process contravened the university’s internal rules. “TEQSA doesn’t believe that entire degrees should be fast-tracked,” Dr Clarsen said. “That’s ludicrous.”