State Government Intervention in University Governance 1996-97

A letter to the Chancellor of the University of Melbourne concerning the Members of the Council who were elected by the Graduates of the University

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[Note: I was a member of the Council, the governing body of the University, as one of those members elected by the graduates, at the time when the Victorian State Government introduced new legislation to re-define the membership of all the university governing bodies in the State. The University of Melbourne, established in 1853, is by far the oldest of seven public universities in the Melbourne area, most of which have several campuses. Its governing body had developed over the years as a broadly representative body with members from a wide range of interests, including general community and representatives of business and the professions appointed by the State Government, elected graduates, academic staff and students, the academic board, and senior management.
The newer universities tended to have councils which were less broadly based and sometimes became dominated by special interests, or much affected by competition between interest groups, such as unions or business or government. The Kennett Government in Victoria has taken a strong stand against unions and in favour of business interests, and apparently sought to advance those interests and improve the functioning of the councils by removing opposition and increasing business representation on the governing bodies of universities. The University of Melbourne argued that as it has not been a cause for concern in these matters, and its council was working well with a notable absence of any polarized division or party politics, there was no need to intervene in its case, but the State Government insisted that all should be treated the same, and so the separate Acts of Parliament constituting each university would be over-ruled by a single Act defining the membership of all the councils.
This followed a Federal Government review of university governance which had recommended, amongst other things a reduction in the size of university governing bodies to make them more like company boards and less parliamentary in character. At the same time the State Government had privatized many State bodies and in general had promoted a corporate business culture. In these circumstances it was very difficult to take a effective stand with academic values and tradition, to defend a broad range of interests and the essential character of the University, against the new wave of dominance by corporate interests, and so I am no longer a member of the Council of the University of Melbourne.
The following letter was used by the Chancellor (who holds and honorary position and presides at meetings of the council but is not the chief executive of the institution) in his submission to the State Government committee which reported on the proposed changes. It was also quoted at length by the Hon Bill Forward in his speech on the bill in the Legislative Council.]

11 December 1996

The Hon Sir Edward Woodward

The Chancellor

The University of Melbourne

Parkville Vic 3052

Dear Sir Edward,

Review of Arrangements for the Governance of Universities in Victoria -- Submission re: Members of Council Elected by Graduates

At the last meeting of Council I was one of several members who spoke on the need to maintain the membership of external members of Council elected by the graduates, and I agreed to write to you on this matter.

I believe it is in the long term interests of the University that you include in your submission on our behalf arguments in support of some members of Council being directly elected by the graduates, and I would suggest that you consider the following:-

1. Academic autonomy is essential to the character of a university as we understanding it. Indeed many would date the beginning of the modern university in Western Europe from the time when, at the beginning of the twelfth century, the University of Paris was granted the right to make teaching appointments independent of the church hierarchy which until then had controlled the appointment of teachers. It is immaterial for our purposes whether external control comes from church or government or from other providers of resources or of standing in the community. Whatever the major source of influence and whatever the internal structure may be, the governing body which makes key appointments and controls the internal allocation of resources must have a high degree of independence if academic autonomy at the workface is to be maintained.

2. It is equally true that freedom to pursue the teaching and research objectives of the university must be balanced by service to the community. In this respect it is important to recognize that the public we serve is broader and has much more diverse long term interests than the government of the day, State or Federal, whatever political colour it might be. The founders of the University of Melbourne, and those who have guarded its character through legislative changes over several generations have maintained this value of serving a broad range of interests, although different interests have had more or less influence from time to time.

3. The special interests which are being promoted by the present Victorian Government, are represented in the Minister's announcement of the review by the phrase "it follows that business and industry should have a formal and direct involvement in university governance". We would not wish to deny the value of those interests being represented on the Council, but such provision is already made in the definition of categories for the appointment of members by the State Government. The definitions and numbers of those categories might be reviewed but they will need to be balanced by other interests which are primarily represented by those members elected by the graduates. In this regard it is important to maintain the traditional function of members of the professions in making independent contributions to the government of corporate bodies and voluntary societies, independent, that is of the principal stake holders.

4. There was a time, until the reforms of the early seventies, when, in the way "membership" of the University was defined, a student joined the University upon graduation. "Membership" of the University was then extended to include students, staff, council, graduates, etc., but the basic concept had been that the University consisted in the main of the body of its graduates, much as a profession consists of its members. The meaning of this idea had largely been lost before the changes were made in the time of the "cultural revolution" in the face of student demands for participation at all levels of the organisation. At about the same time the role of Convocation was significantly reduced. Today a different type of special interest is claiming greater attention. If its gains are made also at the expense of the graduates the independent contributions of the representatives of the graduates would be further replaced by members of Council who have special interests to pursue, and the traditional values of the institution may be further eroded.

5. It might be argued that those values embodied in the earlier conception of membership have already disappeared, but I doubt whether that is so in the sense that graduates do still tend to identify themselves in some respects with their university and I believe it is very much in interests of the University that they should continue to do so. During the discussion of the matter in Council I pointed to the very successful procedures used by Harvard University to maintain the interest of the graduates, and in particular to the role of graduates in electing all 36 members of its Board of Overseers. If it is the case that recent experience at Melbourne has shown relatively little active interest among graduates in nominating and voting, then that is something to be addressed by means such as those employed elsewhere to find suitable nominees and encourage people to vote.

6. There is no doubt that there are great financial benefits to be obtained, although we at Melbourne have only just begun to develop a suitable culture for such support. It would be a mistake, however, and too great a reflection of current values, to give attention to financial benefits alone. The current values of the market place are too narrow to endure. In the long run the University will benefit more from a broad understanding of who the public is that it serves and who will take an interest in its affairs. It is not only "private" universities who have this interest. Although we may plan to move in the direction of developing some of the characteristics of a private institution (Harvard began as a public body established by the General Court of Massachusetts), this University will necessarily retain its public character for a long time. It is in the interests of public bodies accountable to Parliament also to the retain the good will of many ordinary citizens whose interest is a kind of protection against unwarranted government intervention, or domination by any particular interest.

7. Convocation might play a useful role in helping to identify suitable nominees for election to Council by the graduates, but it is too much reduced in function and representation to attract the interest of at least some graduates who would be well qualified and willing to contribute to the work of Council. Such people might not be known to the Committee of Convocation who could favour those who have served well in its limited role. There should be other avenues open and a procedures for ensuring that the number of well qualified nominees always exceeds the number to be elected.

8. The University values both change and tradition. There is some value in stability and the avoidance of too frequent externally induced change. I am sure that the State Government will be aware that if it can change the membership of Council to favour strongly one interest group and remove another, the next Government could reverse the change. The interests of all concerned, and especially of the University itself would be better served by there being a general acceptance of the need for breadth and balance. Indeed it may be important for the present government to refrain from completely reversing the kind of special interest representation on some existing councils. I remember how when I was a member of the council of Melbourne State College union representation, directly and through elected staff, was strong enough to pose some threats to the independence of the council if some members were absent, and how when that council was replaced by another when the Melbourne College of Advanced Education was formed following amalgamation with the IECD, the opportunity was taken to remove members who were unacceptable to the unions, although some other members were appointed and there were other pressures which led eventually to a lessening of that influence at the time of amalgamation with the University.

9. If graduate representation is removed or disproportionately reduced, membership of Council would consist largely of internal members and those appointed by government. That could result in a degree of polarisation depending upon the extent to which the senior management and other staff had common interests. Council would be in danger of reflecting within itself any tensions which developed between Government and the management. Alternatively the division could occur between the management and other internal members. Graduates bring another dimension which would make the development of any such polarity less likely. If there were with a broader range of external members there would be less incentive for the government to reduce internal representation that might otherwise be called for. However, if there is to be a reduction in the size of the Council, I would favour a proportionate reduction of internal members at this stage to a degree necessary to reduce the probability of future government intervention.

10. On a separate point, there is value in having only the chief executive from among the senior management as a voting a member of the governing body as was suggested in the draft prepared for the last meeting, but the number of internal members is quite high and its proportion of the whole membership should not be increased by making a greater reduction in the number of external members, especially those elected by graduates. It might make administration a little simpler to reduce the complexity of the interests represented on the governing body, particularly in regard to internal membership. As far as external representation is concerned there would be no reason to believe such simplification would bring an improvement in quality.

The best interests of the University, the Government and the general public would be served by maintaining the number if possible, and the proportion otherwise, of members elected by the graduates.

Yours sincerely,

David Beswick

Professor Emeritus

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