Victoria wants to remove all democratically elected seats from its University Council, and student leaders are fucked off about it.
After a month-long consultation process, the University last Monday released its proposed changes to Council. Submissions on the proposals close 24 July at 5pm.
Under the changes, the Council—responsible for everything from the University budget to moving faculties—will mostly be appointed by a committee.
The Council will retain two student seats and two seats for “expert” academic staff members. The four directly-elected alumni seats will be removed, and replaced with a requirement that at least two members of Council be Victoria alumni. In addition, at least two of the 12 seats must be filled by Māori, and five by women.
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The current, nineteen-strong council has no Māori members, six women, and thirteen white dudes.
The most controversial proposal is the removal of the ten democratically-elected student, staff and alumni seats, and their replacement with four appointed seats. A seven-strong Appointments Panel—made up of the Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, two people nominated by Council, the VUWSA President, one Te Aka Matua (the Māori Advisory Committee) nominee, and one academic staff member—will appoint these and three other seats.
VUWSA President Rick Zwaan slammed the changes as undemocratic. He said the proposal “suggests that a panel of seven council appointees are better placed to choose a student representative than the 22,000 people this person would endeavour to represent”.
“It’s important that the decisions are made by the community and not by a select few people.”
The Tertiary Education Union (TEU) has also publicly condemned the proposed Council for lacking democratic accountability. “The University needs to be brave and trust its students and staff to continue to make wise choices,” TEU President Sandra Grey said.
The union also disagreed with the lack of representation afforded to general staff who, according to Grey, “make up half of the University’s workforce”.
With regards to the seats allotted for Māori, Ngai Tauira co-President Geneveine Wilson recognised that there was “potential for a greater Māori voice under the new composition”, but that this was subject to those on the advisory and appointment committees.
Wilson also said the lack of elections would silence students and expressed concerns that appointment panels could be problematic for Māori representation if “Te Aka Matua membership [were] not solely Māori”.
The changes have been prompted by the passage of the Education Amendment Act (No 2), which, among other requirements, has reduced the maximum council size from 20 to 12.
The legislation was widely seen as an attempt to increase government influence over tertiary institutions; the number of Minister-appointed positions will remain at four while councils shrink overall.
Appointment vs Election
The proposed Appointments Panel will select members of the Council on the basis of their “knowledge, skills, experience and diversity”. This is believed to be an improvement on voters, who tend to make their decisions on the basis of coin flips and readings of rabbit entrails.
During the consultation period, the University sent out surveys to staff and students asking how the Council should be selected. The survey question concerning the selection process was criticised for its lack of clarity. Readers were asked whether members should be selected via a “stakeholder composition approach” (in this case, stakeholders are staff, students and others like businesses or unions) or selected in regard to “optimal diversity of background”.
The question failed to both specify that the “stakeholder composition approach” meant members were elected, and inferred that this option did not ensure “diversity of background”.
Zwaan argued that “elected members in the past have been the most gender-equitable, and have had a wider variety of skills.”
BoardWalks Consultor Graeme Nahkies, who was brought in to assist in the consultation process, claimed in his report that representation via election wasn’t necessarily “the best way of delivering Governance competencies”.
Nahkies claimed staff and student members currently had conflicts of interest with the Council and concluded that “the most effective way of managing conflicts of interest… is to avoid them in the first place”.
The report cited VUWSA President Rick Zwaan’s recent denouncement of Engineering Master’s programmes as the reason for the VUWSA President being excluded from the proposed Council.
Zwaan’s position means he must sometimes publicly criticise Council decisions when those decisions are not in the best interests of students. As a result he is unable to fully subscribe to the principle of collective responsibility—that all individual members should publicly support the collective decisions of the body.
Instead of the drawing the logical conclusion—that collective responsibility isn’t always desirable and elected Council members should have their freedom of speech protected—the University and Nahkies decided to ditch democracy because, hey, fuck accountability.
The last time the VUWSA President did not automatically hold a position on Council was 2013. The President from that year, Rory McCourt, last week described Nahkies’ reasoning as “absolute bullshit”.
McCourt, who was instrumental in restoring the VUWSA President’s seat on Council, said that the President brings essential institutional knowledge to the position that cannot be matched by other student representatives.
A lack of voter turnout for council elections was also taken to mean that staff and students members should simply be be appointed. Nahkies’ report stated that “History would seem to suggest that, apart from a small number of motivated individuals, neither of those communities has a great deal of interest in being directly involved in the governance process.”
According to Salient’s calculations, several thousand voting students is still much larger than a seven-person committee, as are the 2000-odd staff and students who completed the governance survey, and the 155 people who personally emailed submissions.
Finally, the lack of elections were justified on the basis that “it is only occasionally that Council decisions (e.g. student tuition fees) are likely to have a direct bearing on the student population”. It’s ironic that the report was released a week after Council decided to close its Karori campus and relocate over 1000 students to Kelburn with no clear plan as to how to house them.
So we may have abandoned objectivity and balance somewhat here, but seriously Vic—what the fuck?
To make a submission on the proposals, email firstname.lastname@example.org before 5pm, 24 July 2015.