University Council cuts Staff, Student Reps

Truly 2016 seems the year for changes at Flinders University. A current push by elements within university government are attempting to cut the number of staff and student representatives on University Council.

A meeting was held on July 25 where the suggestions were brought up for discussion. In attendance were members of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), FUSA student council, and other concerned people. The explanation given by Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) Andrew Parkin at the meeting was that there was a desire to make the Council more ‘nimble and flexible’. In discussion with ET, many have pointed out that it appears a difficult task to make a body that meets only five times a year ‘nimble and flexible’. Others have questioned the merit to having a governing body with such qualities.

Questions were raised in relation to the openness of students to attend. Parkin suggested that students would be welcome and that very few items on the agenda are considered confidential. FUSA Student President Caleb Pattinson said that he thought it would be ‘very telling’ how quickly students are asked to leave upon attending a University Council meeting.

Between these two disparate views of the openness of Council sits the truth. 32 of a possible 64 items on the agendas of the first two meetings this year have been confidential. The 32 non-confidential items include items such as meeting opening and closing, acknowledgement of Kaurna land and other matters of course. As soon as the meeting gets to the decision-making and reporting, the confidentiality sweeps over the vast majority of items.

Julie Petticrew, the NTEU Flinders Branch Secretary stated that her opinion was that the move was motivated by a desire to restrict ‘the input of staff and students’ have relating to ‘University governance and the VC’s [Vice-Chancellor Colin Stirling] performance’. She described the management’s stated motivation as being ‘predictable neo-liberal speak’.

Petticrew describes a ‘reduction in transparency’ in the University’s running – a claim borne out by the tally of confidential and non-confidential items in the minutes of the UC.

Reportedly, a Bill has already been drafted for approval by Cabinet. The fact that this process has been taken prior to any consultation meeting to give staff and students a chance to speak, has caused ‘many NTEU members [to raise] concerns’.

Flinders Chancellor Stephen Gerlach has historical ties with the South Australian state government, being embroiled in the Gillman land deal – a controversial sale that saw the Gerlach-headed Adelaide Capital Partners consortium buy the land without going to tender.

The positions that will be overwhelmingly impacted by these cuts are those of staff and students – the very same positions that are the only ones elected, rather than appointed by Council to itself, as is the case with external members.

Petticrew describes the proposal as being ‘at best, totally unwarranted, and at worst, a disingenuous attempt to further silence the voice’ of ‘elected staff and students.’

Caleb Pattinson has since sent a letter to Andrew Parkin to outline the Student Council’s position on the matter and highlight several key concerns they have. Pattinson raises concerns over the impact this will have upon the ‘student-centred ethos’ of the University and the fact that the current make-up of the Council is in line with the Voluntary Code of Best Practice – an argument echoed by Julie Petticrew.

Pattinson labels the consultation process as ‘tokenistic’ – a view seemingly supported by Flinders University’s management electing to have the legislation for these changes processed through early stages of government before the consultation meeting.

The proposed changes, paired with the current standing of University Council skewed in favour of external, non-elected members (both in terms of numbers and the fact external members receive briefings) has led to the perception in some quarters of a ‘two-tiered’ and uneven Council.

On August 11, student councillors Hamish Richardson and Christopher Norman attended a meeting with Vice-Chancellor Colin Stirling and Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Students, Clare Pollock to discuss their differing opinions.

Later that same day, a University Council meeting was held. Both Caleb Pattinson and Simone Jowett (students on UC) were present, as were several other councillors and Empire Times. The meeting began with a 90 minute presentation on a completely unrelated matter before having a much briefer discussion of the proposals. The meeting was at times tense with Gerlach reminding Pattinson that it was he, Gerlach, who chaired the meeting. This exchange occurred in response to Pattinson’s attempt to gauge the opinions of councillors.

It was explained that the process building up to these cuts began in 2012. This led student councillors to question why it took until late July 2016 for the consultation to begin. The proposal originated from a time before a FUSA student council was established.

During the day, the Student Council had spent four hours during which they amassed a total of around 400 signatures in opposition to staff and student representation cuts and the University’s pro-deregulation stance.

When approached by ET for comment, student councillor Hamish Richardson said he considered the answers he and Norman had received were the ‘best [they’d] received so far’ though the answers were still not yet adequate. He added that he felt his biggest concern was that they were not given the opportunity to ask all the questions they wanted, ‘it was always a matter of prioritising [their] arguments due to the lack of time given to this [matter]’.

Vice-Chancellor Colin Stirling has offered a response since the initial release of the article. Stirling says he ‘remain[s] willing to constructive conversations about the Council’ and remains of the belief that the ‘changes proposed will benefit the operation of the Council’. This remains a subject upon which it appears Student Council and University management are unlikely to agree.

Stirling also rejects the opinion advanced by some that the number of confidential items on the agenda is a concern.

Debate on the future direction of the University remains passionate and active. With FUSA elections for Student Council just around the corner, it will likely remain firmly on the agenda of student politicians for the foreseeable future.

Words by Liam McNally.

Photo credit: EON Productions, 2015. Photograph not of University Council.