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Convocation brings all the grads to the yard

Christina White investigates the recent push to open up discussion on fee deregulation.

Our University typically takes enormous pride in its history. ‘Australia’s First’ is etched everywhere across USyd’s marketing material, and each tour group to arrive on campus is taken through the Quadrangle to be convinced that we are an estranged lovechild of Oxford and Cambridge.

The most recent attempt to invoke USyd tradition – the petition for a meeting of Convocation to debate fee deregulation – has, however, drawn ire from the University’s administration. Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence called it an “anachronism” that was “used in the 1880s and 1890s”. Suddenly, it seems, history is more expedient locked away in the past. Perhaps because a debate of Convocation would likely reveal Spence to be once again at odds with the community he leads. Whilst the Vice-Chancellor supports the basic idea of fee deregulation, current polls show that more than 70 per cent of Australians are opposed.

The looming petition has the University’s administration eschewing its own history, and more enticingly, proving itself unwilling to answer questions about its legal framework. Above all, it sheds light on dearth of forums for debate within our hallowed sandstone.

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The Convocation petition, initiated by four elected Fellows of the USyd Senate, requests that University Chancellor Belinda Hutchinson summon a meeting of Convocation to debate whether or not the University should support the Federal government’s changes to higher education and fee deregulation.

Convocation broadly refers to the graduate community of a university and its academic staff. If the meeting is summoned, then all USyd alumni would be invited to participate in the debate and the University would be obligated to publicly advertise the meeting. It would be the first official forum for members of the USyd community to express their views
on fee deregulation.

Looking at USyd’s alumni, the prospective guest list could make for a historic debate: political heavyweights Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey, Anthony Albanese, Mike Baird and Clover Moore would have the right to speak in the presence of University management, as would a handful of High Court justices and world-renowned economists. While well-known dropout Gina Rinehart did attend USyd, she won’t have the right to speak or recite poetry because one must finish their degree to attend Convocation.

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) and student organisations such as the Sydney University Postgraduate Representatives’ Association (SUPRA) are promoting the petition. It will be presented to Hutchinson early next month. Hutchinson has discretion over whether or not to accede to the request. If she refuses to summon the meeting, the matter will be referred to the University Senate, USyd’s primary governing body, which has the power to overrule the Chancellor’s decision.

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While USyd’s alumni are rarely considered stakeholders of the University community, graduates lie at the core of the University in law and tradition. Convocation is one of the four constituent parts of the university, alongside the Senate, staff and students.

Convocation has the official power to make recommendations to the Senate on any University matter, and the Senate can refer matters to Convocation for an opinion – in theory at least.

In the early 20th century graduates actively agitated to be able to voice their concerns about University policy and, in 1939, a Standing Committee of Convocation was established to represent their interests. This Committee organised meetings of Convocation for political discussion. In 1959, Sir Robert Menzies gave an address on higher education funding, followed in 1962 by economist John Crawford, who discussed Australia’s strategic and economic outlook.

In 2006, the Committee was renamed the Alumni Council. The Council no longer takes policy stances on issues affecting USyd alumni and appears to prioritise alumni networking. The President’s online statement describes the “comprehensive program of alumni events” as having “an increased focus on joint alumni and development-focused activities,” which appears to be a far cry from the political lectures of decades past.

English lecturer Dr Nick Reimer sees a “striking contradiction” in how the University relates to its alumni today. “It is never backward about soliciting donations from graduates,” he said, “but is resisting the idea that they deserve to be consulted about fee deregulation.”

When approached for comment, the Alumni Council directed Honi to the University. We asked whether the Alumni Council is bound to the obligations of the Standing Committee – which appears to include annual meetings with quorum of a hundred – and received no answer.

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The petition movers – Senate fellows Verity Firth, Catriona Menzies-Pike, and Andrew West (elected by the alumni), and Patrick Massarani (elected by the undergraduates) – believe the graduate community’s voices need to be heard when it comes to fee deregulation.

“Convocation is a unique opportunity to bring graduates and academic staff together to discuss what is a generational change,” Menzies-Pike said. Given “the role of the University in the broader community, Darlington, and New South Wales,” she emphasised the importance of “involv[ing] members of the wider University of Sydney community, both on- and off-campus” in the debate.

Convocation has been criticised for being unrepresentative. A University spokesperson said the Vice-Chancellor is “concerned that a convocation does not include students” and expressed doubt that “convocation can adequately represent the views of more than a small number of stakeholders.” It is unclear what form of consultation Spence does support. Despite repeatedly expressing a commitment to widespread consultation on fee deregulation, students are yet to be consulted. When asked when that consultation would begin the USyd spokesperson told Honi, “the forms this consultation will take are still being explored”.

The spokesperson said the “University is waiting to see what the legislation is” before finalising its position on fee deregulation. The Fellows supporting the petition believe that debate should be happening now. “I want us to be part of the debate, not the victim of it,” Massarani contended.“The fact that the government hasn’t made what’s going to happen clear shouldn’t be an indictment on us, it should be an indictment on the government.”

Supporters of the petition emphasise the need for more discussion and community debate in any form. Menzies-Pike stressed that “more consultation rather than less on this issue is critical … any opportunities that exist should be enthusiastically explored.”

Other Senate Fellows, past and present, have echoed the pressing need for wide debate. Associate Professor Janet Mooney, former Senate Fellow and Director of the Koori Centre, stressed the need to give a platform to groups that will be adversely affected by the changes.

“National indigenous groups are pushing back hard, they’re very concerned because we’re only just getting close to parity, and if you don’t have a scholarship you’re in trouble,” she said. “An open forum should be the way to go,” Mooney added, because “a university can’t do it by itself. The whole university sector and the wider public must be involved.”

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The debate over Convocation as an appropriate forum to discuss fee deregulation speaks to a larger question of University governance. Hutchinson is the first Chancellor of USyd in recent history not to hold a postgraduate degree. Her experience is overwhelming corporate, sitting on numerous executive boards.

The industrial disputes in 2013 exposed rifts within the University, and Spence was accused of prioritising corporate interests to the detriment of staff and students.

Many academic staff continue to feel alienated from how the University is run. “There is a fairly serious crisis of governance in the University,” Reimer said.

“The University’s own surveys show this very clearly. The people who work here feel completely locked out of any decision-making,” he said. “There’s no collaboration or collegial decision-making. It is becoming increasingly clear how counterproductive a severely top-down authoritarian way is.”

The Senate elections late last year saw the success of a reform agenda. Menzies-Pike, Firth and West were elected by the graduate community alongside journalists Kate McClymont and Peter FitzSimons. Menzies-Pike’s election statement read: “The current managerialist approach of university management is having a corrosive effect on the university community.” After being elected, Firth told Honi that degrees should not be reduced to “money spinners”.

West also emphasised the dangers of education being viewed as a commodity. His election statement said he would prioritise protecting humanities subjects “from creeping pressure to dumb down for the sake of fad, fashion or ‘marketability’” and also “maintaining the integrity of the sciences, which face increasing pressure to enter potentially compromising ‘industry partnerships’ and commercial agreements”.

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“The greatest danger is, of course, that he who pays the piper will always be permitted to call the tune,” orated Sir Robert Menzies in the Great Hall during an Address to Convocation in 1959.

Back then, Menzies was concerned about politicians exercising influence on universities by virtue of providing funds. It seems that concerns of how to facilitate academic research and make education accessible are immemorial.