Teaching conditions, student accommodation, and greater student diversity have been flagged as major priorities by the newest members of the University of Sydney Senate.
After an unusually competitive campaign the University announced that journalists Kate McClymont, Catriona Menzies-Pike, and Andrew West had been elected to the body, along with former Member for Balmain and Labor state minister Verity Firth. Sydney Morning Herald columnist Peter Fitzsimmons was also returned as a Fellow, bucking a trend that saw current Graduate Fellows Jane Spring, Barry Catchlove, and David Turner all lose their positions.
Both Menzies-Pike and Firth are former Honi Soit eds.
New Senators, New Priorities
Andrew West told Honi that he was concerned about the growth of online education, and believed commercial pressures had led to the development of overly specialised courses.
“Too many universities are educating to a sort of narrow technocratic base and there are too many courses that are focused just on very narrow disciplines,” he said.
West pointed to courses like the University’s Masters of Buddhist Studies as well as its Media and Communications program as examples and argued that such courses potentially fail to provide students with a sufficiently wide base of knowledge. Like all the newly elected Fellows, however, he was careful to note that such thoughts were emblematic of his general thinking rather than specific plans.
“I’m just giving you some broad brushstrokes now of my beliefs,” West said.
West also said it was “incredibly important” that the University continue to find ways to increase the number of low SES and Indigenous highschoolers joining the student body and mentioned that – as the son of a railway worker – these were objectives he “totally supports”.
The Senate is one of the University’s most important organs for monitoring internal decision making and policy. It is made up of 22 Fellows – including the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor – 12 of whom are elected from and by the University’s staff, students, and graduate community.
In recent years protests associated with the anti-staff cuts and EBA campaigns have often targeted the Senate, accusing its members of betraying the interests of staff and students and attacking the corporate background of some of its members.
Firth in for Equity Goals
Equity goals may prove a common interest for the new Fellows with Verity Firth also noting the area as a high priority. “One of the main reasons I wanted to run was to make sure that Sydney Uni stayed focused on equity initiatives, on making sure the University attracts students from a range of different background,” she said.
Asked whether she was concerned about the University’s shift to expensive postgraduate courses such as the Juris Doctor, which effectively allow wealthier students with lower marks into competitive degrees, Firth said she had not researched the issue but cautioned that degrees must not be reduced to “money spinners”.
A win for the NTEU?
Close consultation with staff and students, and the importance of transparency, were common themes expressed by the new Fellows. Supportive of such goals, Catriona Menzies-Pike, West, and Firth all scored an endorsement from the National Tertiary Education Union during the campaign. Menzies-Pike said that her goal as a Fellow would be encouraging, “excellent teaching, world-class research and academic freedom to thrive”.
The result of the graduate election appears to indicate that the National Tertiary Education Union’s (NTEU) concerns about staff conditions have made their way into the broader University community. Though the politics of this campaign were complicated, and its results should not be read simply as a victory for the NTEU, the union’s backing clearly played a role in allowing Menzies-Pike and West to overcome other bigger names in the race, including high profile ex-Liberal MP Peter King, who ran alongside Fitzsimons in a group called “Unify” and scored support from groups like SUSF and the USU.
Earlier in the year the NTEU succeeded in having all four of its candidates elected to the academic staff positions.
“Certainly the election by graduates of three NTEU-backed candidates to Senate is a strong sign that the broader university community is concerned about the working conditions of staff on campus,” Menzies-Pike reasoned.
Fitzsimmons offered similar analysis. “Politically, it is obvious that the new [Fellows] represent a strong push from [the] academic staff themselves,” he told Honi.
Though vowing to work with the NTEU, West made it clear he did not consider himself a union representative.
“Let me make this very clear to you, let me make this very clear,” West said. “I’m not a delegate of the NTEU but because I have been for 20 years, philosophically, a unionist, I support the NTEU’s right to be…an active participant in university life.”
When the Journalist meets the Subject
Though not associated with NTEU ticket, McClymont has outlined a set of priorities that are also likely to please the union’s members.
“I don’t have a set agenda but I am concerned about the erosion of face to face teaching hours, and the diminution of academic staff numbers,” McClymont wrote in an email to Honi. “I am also concerned at what I see as lack of funding for research across the Arts Faculty.”
McClymont also mentioned affordable housing as an area of concern. Though the University is greatly expanding the number of beds it offers, its definition of “affordable” has caused anger among the student body.
In response to questions about potential clashes with the non-elected members of the University’s Senate, who tend to come from corporate backgrounds, the new Fellows remained diplomatic.
But their differences could prove to be more than just philosophical.
McClymont was involved in a Fairfax investigation that revealed businessman and University of Sydney Senate Fellow (and Chair of the Investment and Commercialisation Committee) David Mortimer had previously operated a company in the tax havens of the British Virgin Islands.
In response to Honi’s questions about her potential working relationship with Mortimer, McClymont said: “With regards to David Mortimer, he has had a long career in banking and finance and I am sure he has acquired a most useful set of skills that the university would be keen to utilise. Mad if they didn’t!”