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Graduates and staff back calls for Convocation

Christina White and Justin Pen report on the debate to open up discussion on fee deregulation.

A litany of stakeholders have come out in support of a petition put forward by so-called “rebel” Fellows of the University of Sydney  Senate, which would open the door to wide-scale debate on the issue of fee deregulation.

The petition, which calls for a meeting of Convocation, would allow current and former Fellows of the Senate, graduates, and full-time academic staff of the University to air their concerns on a chosen topic of debate.

Significantly, Chancellor Belinda Hutchinson has the discretion to decide whether a meeting of Convocation will be convened.  If denied, the matter would go to the Senate for a vote on whether to hold the meeting of Convocation.

The Fellows have requested the following motion for debate:

That Convocation expresses its concern at the federal government’s proposed changes to higher education. We request the federal government restore the higher education funding cut in the 2014 budget. We further ask that the University of Sydney refrain from supporting fee deregulation, which will prevent or discourage potential students from seeking admission to the University because of an inability to meet or repay tuition costs.

In an email sent to branch members yesterday, National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) USyd Branch President Michael Thomson encouraged members to support the call for Convocation.

“If you are a University of Sydney graduate or academic staff member, we invite you to print off and sign the attached letter to the Chancellor. If you know of other University of Sydney graduates, please forward it on, distributing this email as widely as you can,” he wrote.

Thomson cited the work of US economist Joseph Stiglitz asserting fee deregulation would increase educational inequality, “especially for students from low- and middle-income backgrounds.”

“Consultation with the University Community is exactly what the Vice-Chancellor should be doing,” said USyd Branch Vice-President (Academic Staff) Damien Cahill.

“Convocation would be an excellent means of achieving this. It is unfortunate that the Vice-Chancellor has not been fully critical of the government. [Fee deregulation] is not in the interests of staff or students, or the University as a whole.”

Sydney University Postgraduate Representative Association (SUPRA) President Timothy Scriven also supports the call for a meeting of Convocation.

Though the SUPRA council has yet to formally discuss the issue, Scriven has expressed that the petition is “in line with SUPRA’s policy of opposing fee deregulation.”

“SUPRA is opposed to fee deregulation. We have been since time immemorial,” Scriven said. “I will continue to put notices about it out through our various channels, including eGrad and Facebook.”

“We need an open, democratic discussion. There are limitations to Convocation, but any process has limitations, and the decisions of Convocation are democratic and transparent in a way the decisions of most consultations are not.”

Former undergraduate Fellow of the Senate Ben Veness said, “I’m not sure that [Convocation is] the most efficient means of consultation but it is certainly a proposal worth considering.”

He further stated he was not in favour of fee deregulation. “There are lots of risks, particularly with price exploitation where there is significant demand for degrees such as Medicine and Law. The HECS system is wonderful but it completely distorts normal pricing signals in a market.”

Senate Fellows advocating for a meeting of Convocation include The Conversation’s Arts Editor Catriona Menzies-Pike, former ALP state minister Verity Firth, ABC Radio National host Andrew West, and undergraduate representative Patrick Massarani.

Massarani said that Convocation would be “a very powerful way” to start debate. “We have a brains trust, so why wouldn’t we be calling on the great minds of the University to formally debate the question?”

Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence previously expressed a desire to consult with the broader university community on fee deregulation. In an email sent to students on June 12, he wrote: “I will be in touch over the next few weeks to outline how this conversation will be continued with the University community, including arrangements for consultation with the student representative organisation.”

However, a spokesperson for the University described Convocation as an “anachronism” in a statement to the Honi. “[Convocation] cannot realistically representative of anything but a small part of our diverse community”.

The University has also expressed it is still open to other methods of consultation.

“Regardless of whether the Convocation occurs, views expressed by alumni and staff will be taken into account in the University’s response and its negotiations with government. The University is planning widespread consultation with academics, student and alumni on the government’s higher education reforms,” the spokesperson said.

“The forms this consultation will take are still being explored but the Vice- Chancellor is concerned that a convocation does not include students.”

Challenging the University’s concerns over representation, Massarani said: “Whilst I don’t doubt the Vice-Chancellor’s commitment to consultation, the suggestion that a larger meeting is somehow less representative than a smaller meeting is absurd.”

Thousands of students protested against fee deregulation in rallies last May and Liberal Members of Parliament visiting the University have been subjected to snap protests over the issue.

The Chancellor’s offices did not reply to requests for comment at the time of publication.