Victoria University Chancellor Sir Neville Jordan has said he is “not hung up on gender”, amid mounting concerns that white male dominance on the uni’s governing body may grow.
The comments come in the wake of new legislation that will reduce the Victoria University Council’s size, at a time when women and Māori are already underrepresented and an expert has warned that the Council may be in breach of its Treaty obligations.
The Council is Vic’s governing body and is responsible for the University’s policies and strategic plan and the appointment of its Vice-Chancellor. The nineteen-strong Council, which currently contains only six women and no Māori or Pasifika, will be slimmed down to twelve before the start of 2016 after the passage of the Education Amendment Act (No 2).
While the Act will require at least one Māori representative on Council, it has removed the guaranteed staff and student seats (of which there are currently five) and contains weak and non-binding guarantees on gender balance.
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Despite the reduction in council size, the number of Ministerial appointees will remain at four.
Victoria University Chancellor Sir Neville Jordan told Salient that while he supported more Māori representation and the retention of at least one student seat, he did not see the Council’s 13:6 gender balance as an issue.
“It’s not a problem—it would be better to have more of a balance, but I’m not hung up on gender… we have no dominant alpha males [on Council].”
Sir Neville’s remarks were condemned by Women’s Group President Chrissy Brown and VUWSA President Rick Zwaan.
Brown told Salient that “the further you go up in University ranks the more male-dominated it becomes. I think ignoring it is not the best way to deal with it.”
Brown expressed concerns that the requirement to reduce the Council’s size would further negatively affect female representation on Council, “unless they just get rid of half of the dudes and kept all of the women there.”
Zwaan said Sir Neville’s comments were “seriously concerning… particularly within the university context where we still see institutionalised sexism throughout all levels of the institution.
“Evidently Sir Neville fails to recognise that despite the fact that the majority of our students identify as female, along with the majority of general staff, there are systemic barriers to them fully participating in the tertiary sector.”
Zwaan further stated that “in my short experience of University Council, the critical mass of old white dudes around the table normalises casual sexism to the extent where it’s not vocally challenged despite the many silent cringes.”
“It’s fair to say that Vic hasn’t done very well in terms of Māori representation”
Māori input on Council currently comes in the form of an advisory committee, Te Aka Matua, that sits beneath the Council. The committee has 13 members, seven of whom are Pākehā. The committee has no direct influence within the Council.
Dr. Carwyn Jones, a senior lecturer at Vic’s Law School and an expert on Treaty law, said the current lack of Māori on the Council could amount to a breach of the Treaty principle of partnership, a key aspect of which is Māori participation in the governance of public institutions. Dr. Jones pointed to a recent report by the Waitangi Tribunal that found advisory bodies such as Te Aka Matua were not sufficient to meet the Crown’s obligations under the Treaty where significant Māori interests were concerned.
“It’s fair to say that Vic hasn’t done very well in terms of Māori representation at that governance level.”
A spokesperson for Māori students’ association Ngai Tauira said that lack of Māori representation has been a “longstanding issue” at Victoria, and that Ngai Tauira has “continuously lobbied the University and its Council to create a position to represent Māori interests… However, [Māori] are still not directly part of the decision making process. This university needs to move us from advice providers to decision makers.
“Māori should determine what is best for Māori… we shouldn’t allow non-Māori, Pākehā councillors to determine what they think is adequate representation.”
Sir Neville confessed that he did not know why there were no Māori on Council, but that he was disappointed by the record.
The requirement to have at least one Māori member on each university council has already proved a bone of contention. Universities New Zealand (UNZ), which represents the country’s eight universities, has stated that at least one of the Minister’s four appointees should be a designated Māori appointee, as it is the Crown who is bound by the Treaty. Steven Joyce’s press secretary stated that the requirement was the joint responsibility of the Minister and the Council as a whole.
According to Joyce’s office, of his 32 current appointees on councils nationwide there are seven women and four Māori, although Salient counted only six women.
Sir Neville told Salient that “on the face of it”, the Minister’s appointments had been insufficiently diverse, but that “that’s up to the Minister… in terms of the ones we can control, I’d like to be more diverse.” Dr. Jones said Joyce “could be doing a better job” of ensuring diversity on councils.
“Less emphasis on the intellectual, cultural, and public good benefits”
In yet another demonstration of the general pointlessness of select committees, the Act passed last month despite over a thousand public submissions against it and only one in favour. Victoria University, UNZ, VUWSA and the Tertiary Education Union all submitted against the Bill, which was seen as undermining the independence of universities and wananga.
UNZ Chair and University of Otago Vice-Chancellor Harlene Hayne said last year she felt the select committee did not listen to her submission, and she was “disheartened” at the committee’s “dismissive and cavalier” attitude toward student submitters.
Dolores Janiewski, one the Victoria Council’s two academic staff representatives, said the Act “increases the influence and control of the Government, which means a decrease in University autonomy by definition.”
Janiewski said the changes are “likely to mean greater emphasis on narrowly-defined economic outcomes and less emphasis on the intellectual, cultural, and public good benefits of university education.
“[The Minister’s] promotion of an approach which emphasises future salaries as the main consideration for a choice of major, and his refusal to increase the funding for all courses for the last few years except the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) is suggestive of the sort of education he wants to support and how he wants students and their parents to choose,” Janiewski said.
However, Sir Neville believed there was “nothing in the Bill” that threatened the University’s independence.
“If you look at the percentage basis you could say maybe [it does], but with this current Government, with this current Minister, there has been zero influence exerted. I’ve met him on just one occasion since I’ve been on Council; he said ‘how’s it going?’, I said ‘good’, and that was it.”
Sir Neville told Salient that the new legislation signalled a shift away from a “representative” model on Council and towards a “skills-based” model. However, Dr. Jones claimed this argument was a red herring.
“To say that representation and expertise are two separate and discrete things is kind of glossing over what’s really going on here, because the point of having those different kind of representatives there is to provide a different skill set and different expertise.
“The idea that limiting the representative kinds of positions makes a better decision-making body is quite flawed. If you think about what a university does, it’s an important public institution, it’s not a private corporate business.”
“It’s not about having a post on there or not”
There are currently two student seats on Council, one elected at large and one reserved for the VUWSA President. It is unclear how many seats students will retain on the new Council, or how these seats will be filled, although the general expectation is that students will retain one seat.
Despite this, and in contrast to the position of his predecessor Ian McKinnon, Sir Neville gave no assurances that student seats would be maintained. Instead, he didn’t see “any reason” why “students couldn’t vote for or nominate a person who might have graduated but will be their voice on Council for more than one year.
“It’s not about having a post on there or not, it’s about having someone to represent students, which is very different,” he said.
Zwaan said the Chancellor’s refusal to commit to guaranteed student seats was “contrary to the position the University has publically had during the passage of the legislation.”
Consultation on the makeup of the new Council will take place until June, with changes to be confirmed before the 2016 positions are elected.
As this article went to print, Auckland University had proposed to maintain one seat for students, and one each for both academic and general staff representatives. Lincoln University is seeking one student and one academic staff seat.
Tertiary Education Union President Sandra Grey has called for guarantees to be put in place that one-third of councils (up to four seats) be allocated to student and staff representatives in order to “provide a counterbalance to the Minister’s growing power”.
Pasifika Students’ Council President Karl Moresi was ambivalent about the TEU’s recommendations, noting that while the proposal would “guarantee staff and student representation”, it also contains no assurances about the diversity of staff and student voices within those four seats.