Labor to consider legislation to end independence of USyd colleges

The motion passed only after it was downgraded from an introduction of legislation to a "consideration".

NSW Labor has rejected a motion for a future state and federal Labor government to introduce legislation to end the independence of USyd’s six residential colleges but has agreed to “consider” legislation, in an attempt to address sexual assault on campus.

Labor has passed a motion, led by Summer Hill MP and former SRC President Jo Haylen, to “consider legislation to transfer governance responsibility of private colleges to university administrations”, at the annual state conference held last weekend.

The motion stated that the current arrangement, where each college is governed by its own statute and functions as a self-governing entity, is “out of date” and allows the University to shirk its responsibility for tackling dangerous aspects of college culture, including sexual harassment and sexual assault.

“Real questions remain about whether some residential colleges have lost their social licence to operate given they occupy public land within our public tertiary institutions and, most importantly, have a legal duty of care to their young students and staff,” Haylen told Honi.

The original motion, which called on Labor to commit to introducing legislation, was rejected before it was taken to conference floor. It was then amended, and subsequently passed: the conference floor voted to “consider” legislation, rather than “introduce” legislation, thereby absolving the party of the obligation to take action. One Haylen staffer told Honi that the wording was changed to allow Labor to work more closely with stakeholders, including End Rape on Campus and other activist groups. (EROC director Nina Funnell endorses the ‘introduction’, rather than the ‘consideration’, of legislation).

According to the state conference policy book, Labor rejected the original motion but said that it is happy to help willing colleges engage in internal reform.

Labor’s move comes in the wake of the Broderick review into college culture, published November 2017, and End Rape on Campus’ Red Zone report, which was published in February this year after advocates criticised the methodology of the Broderick review. The Broderick review found that a quarter of women had experienced sexual harassment at college and the Red Zone report detailed multiple case studies of bullying, hazing and sexual assault at the colleges.

Following the release of the Red Zone report, Shadow Minister for Education Tanya Plibersek said that a Labor government would “compel” the colleges to take a strong stance on hazing rituals and sexual assault, threatening to use financial measures and criminal penalties if need be.

Responding to the Red Zone report, Vice Chancellor Michael Spence told the ABC that he has “no authority” over the colleges.

Following Labor’s latest move, a University spokesperson told Honi that the University believes “that the process of cultural renewal lead by Liz Broderick is already having an impact on the culture and behaviour at its residential colleges.”

“[The University] is focused for now on supporting that process.”

Adrian Diethelm, rector of St. John’s, said that he does not see Labor’s ‘motion to consider’ as a push to end the independence of the colleges. Although he does not view the motion as a challenge to John’s, he is opposed to the idea of bringing the colleges under the governance of the University because he believes that internal reform will be more efficient than University mandated reform.

“While there are commonalities between the University’s responses and college responses to sexual assault/harassment issues, the difference in scale can help to drive rapid change in the college environment,” he said.

Illustrating the relationship between St. John’s and Labor, he pointed to how Labor supported Education Minister Rob Stokes’ bill to repeal St. Johns’ outdated act of parliament and replace it with a similar, slightly modified piece of legislation. The new bill, passed in February, effectively tweaked the old legislation to allow female members of the clergy to sit on the council and to give the University marginally more control over the council. St. John’s initiated a re-examination of its legislation in response to the March 2012 hazing crisis, where a group of 33 male students forced a female First Year to drink a toxic cocktail that nearly killed her.

Similarly, a representative of St. Paul’s College told Honi:

“NSW Labor’s motion, as it related to residential colleges, asks future Labor governments to consider legislation to modify governance arrangements at residential colleges. It does not commit to ending their legal independence.”

St. Paul’s said that changing the current governance arrangement would not help the University tackle the issue of sexual assault on campus. He highlighted that “all students at St Paul’s are students of the University of Sydney, are bound by its policies and procedures, and have access to all support services offered to University of Sydney students.”

Representatives of Women’s College and Sancta Sophia College did not directly address concerns about Labor’s motion, instead emphasising the close working relationship between the college and the University.

“Some of the many benefits our students cite about being members of the Women’s College is the formation of life-long female friendships in a community atmosphere,” said Amanda Bell, principal of Women’s. 

Likewise, a representative of Sancta Sophia said, “The friendships and the sense of community” were highly valued by students and alumni. 

It is unclear how bringing the college under the governance of the University would affect the ability to sustain female friendships.

SRC President Imogen Grant, member of left-wing faction Grassroots, said that the SRC supports Labor’s move but remains focused on closing the colleges down altogether.

“The SRC believes that colleges are a stain on campus. Colleges are bastions of elitism, sexism, parochialism and mind-numbing anti-intellectualism.

Reducing the autonomy of the colleges is progress but the colleges should be shut down and converted into affordable housing.”

A previous version of this article stated that St. Paul’s College did not respond to Honi’s request for comment. The article has since been amended.