University Senate: An explainer on the most important student election in 2018

Election season isn't over yet.

Earlier this month, students at the University of Sydney would have received an email asking them to vote for new Student Fellows of the Senate. For many students, that email would probably be the first time they’ve ever heard of the Senate, let alone be aware of its election process.  Honi is here to give you a rundown on what the Senate is, why you should vote, and who you should vote for.

What is the Senate?

The Senate is the University of Sydney’s highest decision-making body. Its ‘Fellows’ (the people on Senate) are responsible for appointing the Vice-Chancellor of Operations— USyd’s equivalent to the Prime Minister. The Senate also approves the University’s annual budget and business plans, oversees policy (and bureaucracy), and generally ensures the University is living up to its mission. In other words, they’re the people you can blame for the long waits in/at the student centre, for giving Michael Spence a $1.45 million salary each year, and for your ridiculously expensive study fees (especially if you’re an international student).

That’s because, by design, the buck ultimately stops with the Senate. It derives its authority from the University of Sydney Act (1989), a complex and lengthy piece of legislation that, among other things, sets upper and lower limits on the number of Fellows that can be on the Senate, specifies that some Fellows need certain skills (financial management, for instance), and defines the body’s powers.

As of late 2016, the Senate has 15 members. These include the Chancellor, Belinda Hutchinson, who is also the chair, the Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence, and the Chair of the Academic Board, Tony Masters. In addition, two people are appointed by the NSW Minister of Education, another five by the Senate itself, while non-academic and academic staff elect one and two representatives, respectively. Many of these members are drawn from the corporate sphere, with a long list of potential conflicts declared online.

What happened in 2016?

In 2016, the Senate was restructured, a move highly criticised at the time by both student action groups and the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU). The restructuring reduced the number of elected positions from 22 to 15, notably halving the presence of academic staff.

The election of student fellows was retained, meaning they represent two of the five elected positions remaining, and thus their election is one of the few avenues through which students can democratically participate in the Senate. The remaining Senate members are appointed by the Senate, Education Minister, or by default as part of their existing positions elsewhere in the University (for example, the chair of Academic Board automatically holds a position in the Senate).

At the time of the restructure, Professor Christopher Murphy, a staff elected Senate member, told Honi these changes reflected the further centralisation of decision making power in university management. Other news outlets picked up on the controversy, with Crikey writing on how the removal of democratically elected positions reflects the increased corporatisation of the University of Sydney.

What are the Senate elections?

Both undergrads and postgrads are able to elect one representative each in elections that take place once every two years in semester two.

These elections are in some respects the most important elections USyd students are enfranchised with. Elected representatives have direct input into policy discussions at the highest level; they could dissuade the University from certain pathways, enhance sensitivity to student concerns when options are chosen, or introduce new ideas that actively enhance the student experience. In general, they provide a substantive layer of accountability, while also doubling as a conduit for expressing the student perspective. This role as a line of communication goes both ways: student Fellows are also uniquely positioned to tell the student body information relevant to their interests.

I’ve never heard of the Senate Elections before, how come?

The Senate elections have never historically been as sexy as the comparatively less influential USU and SRC elections. This may be because voting takes place online, or because they occur around the same time as the SRC elections, with campaigns unwilling to direct resources away from the coveted undergraduate representative body.

Whatever the case, it makes for an irregular, and at times controversial, election experience. In place of campaigners walking and talking people into booths, there are a number of key figures who encourage, or at times pressure, unsuspecting students into voting on laptops, especially in libraries. In place of flashy a-frames are unsolicited messages asking casual tute acquaintances to vote. In place of BNOCs making big display picture changes, are comparatively obscure students mobilising bases that are, in all other circumstances, rather apolitical.

The most recent elections for Undergraduate (UG) Fellow of the Senate, in 2016, were marred by the controversy of this sort. The current UG Fellow, Colin Whitchurch, won his election amid allegations he’d engaged in unfair election practices. At the time, Honi reported Whitchurch standing over students and watching them insert their preferences in the online voting portal; this is despite Senate bylaws mandating that Senate elections must be conducted in a secret ballot. Despite complaints sent to the Electoral Officer David Pacey, Whitchurch’s win was affirmed, raising questions about electoral standards and their quality of enforcement, especially when compared with the relatively austere yet accessible regulations of the SRC and USU.

So what position is up for grabs now?

Colin Whitchurch will wrap up on 30 November 2018, and he will be replaced by whoever wins this year’s elections for undergraduate Student Fellow.

The decisions and responsibilities held by Whitchurch during his two-year term have largely escaped public scrutiny. Despite its obvious importance, the Senate is a mysterious beast. While minutes are available online, key discussions tend to happen “in camera”, meaning they are not publicly disclosed. At the time of publication, the minutes from this year’s June and August meetings have yet to have been uploaded.

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On 1 November 2017, Whitchurch moved and spoke to a motion that could not be documented in the minutes due to confidentiality. As far as we can ascertain from the available minutes, this is the only motion Whitchurch presented during his term. It is telling and disappointing that undergraduate students, whom Whitchurch was elected to represent, are not privy to the motions and decisions he makes in his capacity as a representative.

But this speaks more to the structure of the Senate than it does the interests of one individual. Unlike the USU and SRC elections, there is not an election culture where candidates running for undergraduate Student Fellow are obliged to publicly showcase their policy platform, or accept an interview with Honi which cross-examines their policies. But even if the student Fellow wanted more transparency, rules around confidentiality restrain them from discussing the outcomes of meetings with the student body they were elected to represent. The relatively low profile of the Senate elections and conduct seems incongruous with both the body’s power and general opacity. Whereas information out of other organisations is relatively easy to come by, the Senate is only as transparent as the Fellows on it are prepared to make it.

Who should I vote for?

We can’t tell you who to vote for, but we can tell you that you should vote for a candidate you trust, whether it’s trust in their policies or trust in their politics. As made clear, the structure of the Senate gives students no real way of holding our elected representative to account; after these elections, it’s likely you’ll never hear of the elected candidates’ policies or promises again (that is, assuming you got to hear them the first time around). Honi will be publishing profiles on some of the candidates this week. We encourage you to be informed and vote.