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Confidential senate report recommends ‘corporatisation’ of University governance

Tom Joyner reports

A confidential report commissioned by the University of Sydney senate in 2015 urged it to slash the number of its members to minimise representation and adopt attributes more in line with a corporation.

For the first time, limited details have been made public about major governance changes  the University decided in a closed senate meeting on December 14 last year, in which the position of all elected alumni members of senate – known as fellows – were cut from 2017 onwards.

The partially redacted documents, obtained by Honi Soit under Freedom of Information legislation, have revealed auditors urged the University to see itself as an “entrepreneurial organisation” and appoint more senate fellows with “financial expertise” from the private sector.

“There should be more emphasis on the skills and expertise needed by senate and less emphasis on representation of constituencies,” the report reads.

Dr Michael Copeman, a former long-serving fellow of senate, said the level of secrecy around the report was “a bit of a joke”.

“I don’t think there was any evidence in any of the 14 years I was on senate there was a deficiency in that area [of financial expertise],” he said.

Current and former staff-elected members of senate Honi spoke to expressed their concern with the implications in the report.

I know the current Chancellor doesn’t like using the word ‘corporate’, but it really is a corporate board in the sense that it behaves exactly in the way that a corporate board does,” Copeman said.

“Each step that [the University’s administration] makes is an entrenchment of their power at the expense of their constituencies… because it becomes self-perpetuating and self-interested,” said Stephen Ingate, vice-president of the USU Alumni and Friends Association.

“The managers manage for themselves. They say that they manage for the stakeholders but they don’t.”

Others within the University, who all asked to remain anonymous, told Honi many of their colleagues were hesitant to speak out against the governance changes for fear of recrimination by the Vice-Chancellor, who they described as a “control freak”.

Professor Christopher Murphy, a current senate fellow elected from the academic staff, told Honi in January the governance changes would make the senate a “self-serving board in a cycle of patronage”.

The released senate report is an insight into how the University sees itself evolving from a public education institution into a quasi-corporate body overseen by professional financial managers.

“The traditional model of university management under which academic institutions were run by their academic communities [has shifted] towards more hierarchical models of management,” the report reads.

A spokesperson for the University rejected the suggestion USyd had ‘corporatised’ under its new governance structure.

“Our aspiration to provide the highest quality teaching and research must be underpinned by best practice governance. To ensure this, Senate in December 2015 resolved to make changes to its composition in order to increase its capacity for decision making and broaden its skill base,” they said in an statement.

The released documents were originally requested through a Freedom of Information request in January, but returned nothing back. Very little more information was returned a month later upon request for an internal review. It was not until Honi took the matter to the NSW Information and Privacy Commissioner for review that the partially-redacted documents were released.

The election of two student senate fellows is due to be held next semester.