Shake-up prescribed for Australian representative body

Universities Australia not releasing its latest ‘health check’, after the previous one revealed ‘harsh’ perceptions

April 1, 2021
Sunrise Skyline at Commonwealth Bridge in Canberra
Source: iStock

The umbrella body representing Australia’s universities could be governed by somebody from outside the sector, in the first significant shake-up of Universities Australia (UA) since its 2007 evolution from the Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee (AVCC).

And university chancellors could be drafted on to UA’s board, even chairing it, under recommendations from a review by education consultants PhillipsKPA.

At present, the board consists of eight vice-chancellors along with UA’s chief executive. The consultants have urged the organisation to consider appointing independent board members and a “non-executive independent chair”, and to explore mechanisms for “enhanced consultation and engagement with chancellors”, according to a UA statement summarising the recommendations.

Other suggestions include strengthening UA’s “forward-looking policy development” beyond the three-year electoral cycle, and extending the organisation’s “advocacy strategy” to “matters of broader national significance where universities can make an important contribution” – although Times Higher Education understands there is little appetite among vice-chancellors or chancellors to lobby on issues outside core university business.

The review was reportedly triggered by chancellors’ fury with UA’s perceived lack of political cut-through, demonstrated in setbacks like universities’ failure to obtain eligibility for the JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme or support for international education during the pandemic.

According to The Australian newspaper, the dispute escalated after a 2019 joint meeting of vice-chancellors and chancellors was called off at the last minute. The meeting had been scheduled a few days after the May 2019 election, when the Coalition government retained power – surprising many Australians and particularly UA, which had not prepared for the government’s return.

The chancellors, who include former political, civil service and business leaders, were reportedly appalled at this oversight. The resulting disquiet eventually led UA to commission a major review of itself last December.

UA described the review as a “health check”. Chair Deborah Terry said the organisation had not been reviewed for about 15 years, and the new evaluation was “absolutely appropriate” given the time elapsed.

“[It will] do exactly what a major review should do: ensure that all of our structures and the way we do things are absolutely fit for purpose, [so] that our peak body that represents this country’s 39 universities is as effective as possible,” she told the National Press Club in March.

The University Chancellors Council said it had been briefed about the review’s findings. “Chancellors appreciate the enhanced engagement between us and will discuss the review findings over coming weeks,” said chair Stephen Gerlach. “[We] look forward to further consulting with UA and vice-chancellors in that regard in due course.”

The consultations are expected to take months. UA is not releasing the PhillipsKPA report, regarding it as a conversation starter rather than a fully fledged set of proposals – unlike the consultants’ previous evaluation, in 2006, which precipitated the transition from AVCC to UA.

That report suggests that perceptions of the peak body have not changed much in the intervening period. It recounted a view on both sides of federal parliament that the AVCC was a “negative organisation” and its dealings with government were characterised by “political naivety” and “whingeing self-interest”.

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