In Senate race, students lose

The Honi Soit editorial team sifts through the rubble of the 2014 student Senate elections.

We were as surprised as anyone by the election of Dalton Fogarty as the undergraduate student representative on Senate. In an election that centred on the issue of fee deregulation, Fogarty’s answer to the question of where he stood was that it is ‘complex’ – a euphemism, we can’t help but think, for “I’m not really sure”. We thought, given this clear lack of engagement with the most important student issue the Senate has discussed this year (entertained in calls for Convocation, town hall meetings, focus groups and purportedly extensive consultation procedures), that he was destined to repeat his 2012 showing – a vote count somewhere in the region of 200 votes. Instead, he beat his nearest rival, incumbent Undergraduate Fellow Patrick Massarani, by nearly 1,000 votes.

This result is currently being contested by Massarani and fellow candidate Annabel Osborn. The pair allege Fogarty breached the candidates’ guidelines by standing near students as they voted, and that the Returning Officer failed to respond appropriately or consistently. This complaint, and the attendant confusion around what is and is not acceptable in student Senate elections, should spark a discussion about overhauling them. Agenda items for that discussion: appointing an experienced, external Returning Officer; writing electoral regulations that run longer than two sentences; and organising interviews and debates that would ensure candidates undergo proper and thorough scrutiny.

But aside from issues of Returning Officers and regulations, a larger question still lingers after this election: did any of the candidates receive support from University management at any point in their campaign?

This should never be a question we have to ask.  But in this election, we do. We know that University management was involved in the elections, but we don’t know to what extent. We know that, in collaboration with the USU, they contacted at least two students and have good reason to believe that number is higher. We know the Chancellor and the Vice-Chancellor had morning tea with the Liberal candidate Dean Shachar, but we don’t know what was said or if anything was promised.

The University defended the decision of the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor to contact candidates, with a spokesperson saying the pair “have always seen it as part of their responsibilities to encourage any student who expresses an interest to get involved in the Senate process.” This might be a passable excuse, except they reached out to people who had expressed absolutely no interest in the Senate election, and very selectively contacted those who had. Moreover, neither Massarani nor Osborn – students who had overtly declared their intentions to “get involved with the Senate process” – were invited to brunch with the Chancellor. And, even if the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor had acted consistently with the reasons they provided, it was hardly principled for the most powerful members of the Senate to covertly involve themselves in an election for the only two student seats on that body. It threatens the very limited student space on our governing body, and it taints the rare instance of student democracy there as well.

Why, then, did they do it?

The University Senate is the top governing body of this university. It hires the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor, decides the university’s strategic direction, and sets its budget. Importantly, in this political context, it approves fee deregulation proposals.

It is made up of 22 Fellows: 10 appointed by either the University or NSW Government, including the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor, and 12 elected by students, staff and alumni. Proposals brought to Senate must pass a majority vote before they can be implemented. Significantly, therefore, if the 12 elected fellows were to vote as a bloc, they would have the numbers to block any motions they deemed to be against staff and student interests – including motions to increase fees.

It was not intended to be this way. In 2011, the NSW Liberal Government passed the University Governing Bodies Act. Education Minister Adrian Piccoli, speaking to the bill in parliament, said that universities “are both major public institutions of great strategic significance to the State and very significant businesses. Their governance arrangements need to reflect this reality.” The Act’s intention was to ensure that elected staff, students and graduates would hold the minority of seats on university governing bodies, through increasing the flexibility that university management had in deciding the size and make-up of these bodies. This flexibility, Piccoli said, would give universities “freedom to govern themselves according to their individual missions and strategic plans.”

The management of this university, through oversight or overconfidence, neglected to resize or restructure the Senate in its favour. It has allowed a situation in which a bloc of 12 senators elected by staff, students and alumni could potentially change the strategic direction of the university. Last year’s alumni election saw the victory of a progressive ticket that has actively campaigned against fee deregulation this year. Next year, the staff elections will be held and there is a strong chance that four National Tertiary Education Union members and one Community & Public Services Union member will be elected as Senate fellows. Two progressive students would have completed a bloc that could have stood as a powerful bulwark against any proposed changes to USyd’s fees.

Assuming that the University can count to 12 just as well as we can, its incentive for intervening in this election seems, therefore, clear; a left-wing, anti-deregulation bloc would have thwarted any intentions it may be harbouring to hike fees, despite vociferous protest from USyd staff and students throughout the year.

Considering that, the travesty of this election is not that Dalton Fogarty may have stood over some people while they voted for him on his laptop. That, ultimately, is little more than a fresh iteration of coercive campaign tactics that are used by ambitious student politicians year after year to try and get themselves elected.

The real travesty is that he was elected in the place of a student who could have helped divert the strategic direction being pursued by this University’s management. Like it or not, the Senate has more power to determine the nature of students’ experiences at this University than the SRC or USU Board ever will.

Given the Senate’s powerful role, left wing students should not just decry others’ actions, but reassess their own efforts. In the Senate elections, the two left-wing candidates, Massarani and Osborn, received fewer than 900 votes between them.  By contrast, in the recent SRC elections, the two left-wing Presidential candidates received more than 4,000. If the campus left had engaged with the Senate elections with the same energy and fervour they had shown in the SRC elections a few weeks earlier (and, presumably, won a similar number of votes), no amount of coercion or management interference could have got Dalton over the line. Instead, aside from a few Facebook statuses and profile pictures changes, they were largely silent. We, too, must shoulder some blame, having been distracted in our coverage by the shiny bauble that is SRC elections. This inattention speaks volumes about the left’s misunderstanding of the Senate’s importance, and their unwillingness to work for change within University-controlled institutions, rather than just protesting their existence. The Senate is not students’ stomping ground as the SRC and USU Board are; but that doesn’t mean it should be ignored.

Two students could have joined staff and alumni in blocking fee deregulation at Sydney University. Instead, we got someone who’s still working out whether it’s a good idea or not.

Whether through scheming or just sheer luck, University management got exactly what it wanted out of this election.