How powerful are student fellows on Senate?

Interrogating the power of student fellows.

Lachlan Finch (incoming postgraduate student fellow) and Gabi Stricker-Phelps (incoming undergraduate student fellow) outside F23 - the University Administration Building.

Two years ago in the lead up to the biennial Senate elections, Honi boldly declared the race to be “the most important student election of 2018.” But does that hold up to scrutiny? Following our recent Senate explainer and canvassing the candidates, in addition to the election of Gabi Stricker-Phelps (undergraduate representative) and Lachlan Finch (postgraduate representative) last week, it seems necessary to interrogate the role of student representatives beyond the sloganeering and buzzwords. How much power do student representatives have on the Senate? How much can students practically achieve on the body? Are other student elections more important insofar as collectively fighting for students’ interests?

There is no doubt of the Senate’s importance in how the University of Sydney is governed — it does after all sit at the top of the University’s decision-making hierarchy. Of course, one of the Senate’s key responsibilities is approving the University’s annual budget and overall strategic vision. Yet, there is little discretion with regards to annual budgets from year to year, given they are broadly pre-determined by existing spending commitments and carry over from previous years. Whilst the Senate is tasked with big picture decisions including: the appointment of the Vice-Chancellor (and this year, who will replace Michael Spence), in addition to the incoming Western Sydney campus, the Senate also addresses operational matters that the Executive or Academic Board bring forward.

Yet, with 15 fellows — many of whom are drawn from senior management or the corporate sector — the numbers (2) are certainly against any students committed to pursuing a genuine reform agenda. Students have no veto rights and thus fellows’ ‘power’ lies in their ability to vote for, or against particular decisions and in their attempts to persuade the likes of those embedded in the arms and fossil fuel industries years their senior.

Perhaps most importantly, the Senate rules also stipulate restrictions on fellows’ capacity to make public comments and provide information with external parties. Ultimately, these restrictions are the main impediment for any student fellow, namely fiduciary duties. 

Per the regulations, fellows have “the fiduciary duty of loyalty to act in the best interests of the University.” This includes, for example, not “causing detriment to the University.” Such phrasing is deliberately nebulous, written by management, and easily wielded to quash dissent. Indeed, this is not the only use of purposefully vague wording. The University’s misconduct policy initially saw a student suspended for participating in a pro-choice protest on the grounds that it “undermin[ed] the good order and government of the University” and the “good name or academic standing of the University.” 

Resultantly, it is ironic that once student fellows are elected — on at least some student-representative mandate — they are legally obligated to defer theirs and the interests of students they supposedly represent, be they undergraduate or postgraduate to the University. Given this, it can be reasonably deduced that a student fellow publicly condemning the University’s cuts to medical sciences, or the proposed redundancies in the Learning Centre and Maths Learning Centre would be punished. Students are thus restricted legally (speaking out, leaking documents) and practically (diminished voting power and responsibilities).

Even applying the above to this year’s successful candidates (who ran a joint-style ticket campaign), we see a problem emerges. Despite not running on a particularly ‘progressive’ or reform-driven agenda, and not positioning themselves as anti-management, much of the Stricker-Phelps-Finch campaign platform is functionally meaningless. Despite taking a stance against the University’s use of ProctorU, seemingly in line with student opinion on the exam software, the Senate has nothing to do with the administering of ProctorU and won’t discuss it. Additionally, their pledge to “fight against trimesters”, seemingly in reference to the recently proposed 12-week shift (that was defeated) is the Academic Board’s responsibility, not the Senate’s.

It also seems pertinent to note that the SRC sits on every committee beneath the Senate where students are able to express views without fear. Moreover, the prominence and more hotly contested SRC elections, in which voters are more effectively able to delineate between candidates and brands, seem to, as a general rule, result in the election of Presidents, councillors and Honi Soit editorial teams more in line with the student body’s ideological views, than the Senate elections. Finally, the SRC is chiefly concerned with student representation, advocacy and activism and is not subject to the whims of fiduciary duty clauses, or the influence of University management as is the case with both the Senate and the University of Sydney Union (USU).

Of course there are useful debates to be had about the efficacy of the SRC. Is it as important as factional heavyweights make it out to be when September rolls over every year? Would USyd be leading the student fightback against the LNP gutting higher education were it not for our SRC being the most radical in the country? Would activists be able to effectively organise without the institutional support of their student union?

However, one thing is for sure. If one is committed to fighting for students’ interests via student representative positions on campus, the SRC is a far more effective body than the Senate.

Indeed, Liam Donohoe, the co-author of the 2018 article which claimed the Senate race as the “most important”, successfully ran for the Presidency instead and ruled out a Senate run this year.