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March 24, 2014 | by  | in News |
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Uni Council Reform

The Government has proposed making changes to the Uni Council. The Uni Council is the governing body of the University, and has the primary responsibility for establishing the strategic plan of the University, monitoring academic activities, and ensuring sound financial management – including being responsible for setting fees. The key changes proposed are to shrink the maximum size of councils from a 20 to 12, and to remove guaranteed representation for students. Is this a good idea? Two students go head-to-head.

FOR

by James Nought

There are many controversial aspects to the Education Amendment Bill, but none more so than the question of student representation on university councils. However, I think asking directly whether this is desirable misses the point. If I’m right in my view that student representation is a lofty but hopeless goal, we should simply focus on getting effective university councils.

The question of what ‘student representation’ actually means has been picked apart in New Zealand since the VSM debate started in 2009, and the old consensus has been found wanting.  Previously, under compulsory student membership, there was a legal fiction that student associations represented all students. In fact they did not; student representatives were regularly voted in by the tiny minority of five to ten per cent of students with an activist bent. They had little incentive to encourage broader participation, for the most part preferring to remain within a bubble or outright abuse positions of power. Their ultimate defeat in the VSM debate was telling: this so-called group of student leaders and wannabe future MPs couldn’t make a convincing argument if their lives depended on it, much less organise an effective lobbying and public-relations strategy for an at-best tenuous status quo.

The alternative and totally opposite approach to garner a student voice was the Student Forum, a randomly selected group who could represent a greater cross section of students. Sadly, this didn’t work either; it seems the ‘average student’ simply didn’t care enough to show up to meetings, and after a series of embarrassing setbacks, the Forum was canned.

Directly electing a student representative to the board represents the worst of both worlds. Campaigns for this position are often vapid and devoid of substance; if we’re lucky, the winner is the person whose slogan is the best pun/alliteration on their name. There is also little accountability since few candidates seem to stand for more than one term, meaning there is no ability to ‘vote them out’ for poor performance or misrepresentation.

I say all this to point out that maybe meaningful and direct student representation is impossible to achieve on University Councils. Even where student’s opinions aren’t elusive, they are diverse and poorly informed. It’s also important to remember that every decision by the University administrators and governors is ultimately made in the interests of the University stakeholders; we simply disagree on how best to pursue those interests. Of course students have something to contribute to that decision-making, but is grossly deficient student representation really better than none? I struggle to answer that question with an emphatic ‘yes’.

The Education Amendment Bill will make university councils more effective by downsizing the often unruly bodies, and hopefully bringing in people who know what they’re doing through Ministerial appointments. And that’s all I’ll say for it.

AGAINST

by John Smith

Student representation is a victim of its own success. We have things pretty good today. You don’t have lecturers giving grades based on personal favours, or changing the goalposts a week before exams. There is a big free student health service, which is pretty good. You have clubs and societies and feedback forms. All these exist because at some point, some student raised hell to get it in place, and since then students have quietly and thanklessly been working to protect your rights and address new issues. You don’t often hear about it. Only a few of you are reading this. But it’s important. Because if student voice disappears, our rights and ability to influence change go with it.

Sonya’s column does a good job explaining why the proposal is wrong, but I’ll expand on a couple of points. The idea may be that reducing the size of councils will make them more nimble or effective, but there has been no evidence indicating this will occur. If anything, the evidence suggests the opposite. As it stands, there are a number of top universities with sizable councils, such as the University of Cambridge with a council of 23 (including three students).

Let’s imagine that there was convincing evidence, however. The question then becomes why 12 is the magic number? If forced to shrink, Victoria proposed 14 as a smaller number that it could work with (with maintained stakeholder representation). Why? Universities are complex and diverse, and need council members with both an institutional knowledge and background, and specific skills in areas such as finance and law. Going below 14 risks too narrow a skill set, and provides an insufficient pool of skills to fill Committees of Council (such as Finance, or Audit & Risk) and serve in other key roles. Having a larger Council enables specialisation, promoting efficiency and focus.

The problem with putting our faith in Ministerial appointees to do all of the above isn’t that they’re bad people. The problem is that even with the noblest of intentions, they can never hope to have detailed knowledge of how decisions at the highest level impact staff and students on the ground, as they simply aren’t spending the time here day-to-day. If better governance skills from staff and student representatives are sought, a wiser approach would be providing more training.

Last year’s Student Representation Review worked to set up structures that will require all representatives to provide contact details, information on what they’re doing on boards and committees (including the University Council), and to consult regularly with other representatives before meetings. This is a great step to try to make representation better. Fair comment that things aren’t ideal. But don’t give up. Fix the problems instead.

 

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About the Author ()

Salient is a magazine. Salient is a website. Salient is an institution founded in 1938 to cater to the whim and fancy of students of Victoria University. We are partly funded by VUWSA and partly by gold bullion that was discovered under a pile of old Salients from the 40's. Salient welcomes your participation in debate on all the issues that we present to you, and if you're a student of Victoria University then you're more than welcome to drop in and have tea and scones with the contributors of this little rag in our little hideaway that overlooks Wellington.

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