Vice-chancellors ‘should be university community’s choice’

New Australian lobby group targets transparency, collegiality and ‘reconceived governance’

December 20, 2021
Braydon Ennor of the All Blacks throws a ball into the air chosen from a pile of balls on the ground  to illustrate Vice-chancellors ‘should be university community’s choice’
Source: Getty

Australian higher education would be overseen by a “potent independent prudential advisory body” more akin to the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission of the 1980s than today’s Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency. Staff, students and alumni would dominate university governing councils, with administrators required to give all faculty a voice in academic decisions affecting their schools or departments.

And entire university communities would have a say in the appointment of their leaders, whose pay would be capped at double a professor’s salary.

This is part of the vision articulated by Public Universities Australia, an alliance of three foundation groups – the Australian Association of University Professors, Academics for Public Universities (APU) and the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations – with other organisations reportedly interested in signing on.

The new body’s mission is to protect universities from being “abused by a few privileged individuals or corporate entities”, according to a “lift-off” declaration on the group’s website. “[Universities] serve, and ought to be accountable to, the larger polity within which they are immersed,” it says.

The alliance chose its name as a deliberate counterpoint to the sector’s constituted peak group. “We’re trying to bring together all the…collective voices that are not necessarily represented by Universities Australia,” said APU member Alessandro Pelizzon, a comparative law specialist at Southern Cross University.

“They are an association of vice-chancellors, so by definition they are limited in their capacity to represent voices. We need something that really connects the plural voices of universities – students, graduate students, academics, professional staff, graduates, alumni, emeritus and so on.”

The declaration says people with commercial and corporate expertise must not dominate governing councils “or unduly influence their functions”. Chancellors and vice-chancellors “must be selected from among the most distinguished academics”, it adds.

Dr Pelizzon said the statement was an aspirational working document. “Some of the requests are far more achievable than others, and we’re very aware of that. For example, election of the vice-chancellor is highly unlikely to happen here in the current time [even though] it is the standard in most continental European institutions.

“We’re not expecting all of these things to happen at once, but these are the outcomes we would like to achieve. Most [involve] adopting worldwide norms. We’re not asking for anything novel or radical.”

He said the group’s three priority aims were “reconceived governance”, where councils were “populated primarily by people with expertise in the system”; transparency around universities’ finances and staffing; and a “collegial decision-making structure” that incorporated the voices of students as well as staff.

“That would be a way of balancing decisions that are taken somewhat unilaterally by the administrators,” he said. “For example, the reduction of face-to-face lectures makes logical sense in a digital world, but it’s not what students seem to want. If it’s not what students want and what academics feel comfortable with, then it may not be the best decision.”

Dr Pelizzon said the new body was refining its ideas ahead of next year’s federal election, and planned to lobby ministers, shadow ministers and all members of parliament with university campuses in their electorates. “We don’t think we will hold all the answers, but we believe the only way to get the answers is by having all voices be part of the conversation.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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