Opinion: The case for smaller University Councils

The Hunter Building at Victoria University of Wellingon

You’d be forgiven for thinking the sky was falling in by the reaction of student unions to the Education Amendment Bill, currently before Parliament. Last year the Minister of Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment, Hon Steven Joyce, released a series of proposed changes to universities’ governance structures, and we haven’t heard the end of it since.

Their argument is basically this – Steven Joyce is “stealing [the student] voice”. Let’s test that claim for a moment.

The key changes are these: removing mandatory student representation from university councils, reducing the size of those councils from 12 – 20 members to 8 – 12 members, and requiring Ministry appointments to Councils to have governance capabilities and more specific duties and accountabilities.

Student union campaigns have conveniently ignored the fact that the proposal doesn’t remove the student voice. In fact, the proposal just relaxes the requirement to have it. It will be up to individual councils to decide for themselves whether they have students participating at the governance level. The Victoria University of Wellington Council (to name just one) is unanimous in their belief that students ought to be represented. So, in Victoria’s case, students will be represented, bill or no bill.

Why should Parliament decide what’s best for each university on a blanket basis, as under the status quo? There might be situations where student representation might hinder good governance – for example, if no students ran for election one year. If students genuinely didn’t care whether they were represented, why should universities fish out someone unqualified to govern them? Joyce’s solution is to leave this choice to the university – effectively meaning that where student representation is worthwhile, it’ll continue.

The second change, reducing the size of the councils, is proposed to make councils more effective. The idea is that small councils are more nimble, and can make governance decisions without undue delay. In fact, reducing the size of the university council could even increase student representation, proportionally-speaking. If student unions wanted to have a greater say, they’d be better off supporting the bill, and spending their time lobbying their own councils to retain the same number of seats.

Finally, the bill proposes having the same number (in most cases, four) Ministry-appointed council members. The argument here is that the government funds most of the university’s activities, and should therefore have a decent-sized contingent on each council (and rightly so). Crucially, these people will be required to have proper governance experience, as befits the role. The role of a university council is to govern – chiefly, setting performance indicators for management staff and ensuring the financial stability of the university. It is not the domain of the unqualified, nor should it micro-manage. In a way, it’s the least appropriate organ for engaging the broader academic community. There are better ways to get involved in university management – at the faculty level, for example.

Finally, it’s worth being wary of these kinds of student union campaigns. Typically, those that run them have vested interests – for some, student representation is their job. In most cases, their own political views obscure the pragmatic course of action. Students would be better served if the careerist politicians among us swam with the current.