Give the people what they want

Can an archaic governance body improve University consultation?

Archival image of the last meeting of Convocation. Source: Sydney University Archives mediabank Archival image of the last meeting of Convocation. Source: Sydney University Archives mediabank

Earlier this year, the ABC held its first ever Annual Public Meeting (APM), heralded by management as a way to “increase transparency and accountability in the way public companies do at annual meetings”. The APM gave ordinary Australians — its ‘shareholders’—the opportunity to submit questions to the ABC Board.

Some complained that the APM was just a PR exercise, but it was broadly well-received: several media outlets celebrated the  ABC managing to reduce its running costs from eight to four cents a day.

Could the APM set an example for the University of Sydney? Could (and ,more pertinently, should) USyd hold APMs to be held similarly accountable to its ‘shareholders’ of students, staff and alumni?

Where most entities have a constitution, USyd instead has a piece of NSW legislation as its governing document: the University of Sydney Act 1989 (USyd Act).

Most constitutions demand  annual meetings of their members, but the USyd Act contains no such provisions. Instead, section 14 prescribes for a body called ‘Convocation’, made up of current and former University Senate members, USyd graduates, professors, full-time academic staff, and the heads of the University’s residential colleges. However, Convocation does not include current students of the University.

The decisions that come out of Convocation, unlike the binding results of most entities’ annual meetings, are actually just recommendations and are only implemented if they are also supported by the Senate. This is made clear in Rule 14.1 of the University of Sydney (Amendment Act) Rule 1999 (USyd Rule).

Even though the most recent Convocation was held more than 60 years ago, there have been recent attempts to convoke again. In 2014, four Fellows of Senate requested a meeting of Convocation to discuss the Abbott Government’s university fee deregulation proposals.

At the time, Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence described Convocation procedures as an unwieldy “anachronism” given that Convocation could be open to “literally hundreds of thousands of alumni”. This perspective is still held by the University today: a University spokesperson told Honi that with “more than 320,000 alumni worldwide, 3,000 staff and 50,000 students, there are significant logistical issues with Convocation”.

The four Fellows’ Convocation request was nixed, but USyd management organised an informal ‘USyd town hall’ instead. This meeting included students—giving them the opportunity to be involved they would have been excluded from had Convocation been called.

At the USyd town hall, the clear majority position as expressed by  students, staff and alumni speakers, was opposition to fee deregulation. However, there was some concern as to whether the Town Hall was actually representative of the broader University community.

After the Town Hall, Honi wrote in an editorial that the event “was, unsurprisingly, dominated by USyd’s most familiar faces”, noting that the originally-requested Convocation “had the potential to prise open an entirely new space” in the fee deregulation debate.

So what’s the best approach for USyd? Convocations, informal ‘town halls’, or no APMs at all?

The University argues that “there are more effective ways to engage with our staff, alumni, students and local community” than through Convocation. Instead, the University prefers to hold “town hall meetings and focus groups, [confer] with advisory bodies and committees, and direct communications with staff, students and alumni”.

If these informal ‘town halls’ are used as an accountability mechanism, they could be dominated by the same voices that feature in campus debate, turning Town Halls into a PR stunt.

However, there are two major drawbacks to formal Convocations, the biggest being the exclusion of current students from the Convocation process. If used as APMs, Convocations would preclude any meaningful discussions with all of the USyd community. Further, as noted, the powers of Convocation are also quite limited: Convocation can only provide the Senate with unenforceable proposals.

We must take the best from both worlds. Conducting informal town halls because of the logistical issues with Convocation is not the answer: some multi-billion dollar public companies have a shareholder base larger than the University community, yet can still hold formal annual general meetings, as was the case with the University’s informal Town Halls, students should be included. This could be achieved by amending the USyd Act to change the membership of Convocation.

Similarly, amendments to the USyd Rule to strengthen the currently limited powers of Convocation should also be considered: Convocation should have the power to bind the USyd Senate to its resolutions, rather than just to present them. This would thus render it more effective than the non-binding, informal town-halls as an actual accountability mechanism.

USyd is ripe with issues for community consultation—its restructure of faculties and degrees is well underway, reform of campus culture is an urgent priority, and new infrastructure is continually being built. To keep USyd management transparent and accountable in this environment, annual Convocations could be a step in the right direction.