2002 – The State of Victoria Review of University Governance

Attachment: CAPA Submission

The Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) is the national peak body representing Australia’s 155,272 postgraduate students. Eight of the thirty four affiliated postgraduate associations which make up CAPA’s constituency are Victorian, and as such CAPA welcomes the opportunity to contribute to this Victorian Review of University Governance.

CAPA has been concerned for some time that, in a funding environment where basic operating grants have been consistently reduced since 1996, universities around Australia have been compelled to expand their commercial operations in order to augment diminishing public funding with greater private income. Although this decrease in public investment in higher education has affected all Australian universities, the commercial decisions of the Victorian universities, especially The University of Melbourne, have been the subject of particular controversy and public criticism.

The questions raised by The University of Melbourne’s privatisation of Melbourne IT Limited, and the University’s substantial investment in the Bio21 project, Melbourne University Private Limited and universitas21 global have demonstrated the need for this review of university governance. Above all, CAPA believes that governance structures must be strengthened to protect the public’s interest in universities and their commercial activities.

This submission focuses on the following specific issues:

  • (a) whether universities’ objects or strategic plans should refer explicitly to serving the public interest by promoting critical inquiry;
  • (d) whether councils’ functions should be specified more fully;
  • (e) whether councils’ operations and quorums should be specified more fully, for example in university statues;
  • (h) whether there is a need for a national universities ombudsman;
  • (i) what might be included in a statement of best practice in university governance as it relates to commercial activity, for example, for inclusion in Ministerial guidelines.

Essentially, CAPA recommends that the enacting legislation of all Victorian universities be amended to include: specific reference to serving the public interest as an object of the university; a detailed specification of the functions, operations and quorums of the council; and guidelines and reporting requirements for all commercial activity. CAPA believes that the Universities Legislation Amendment (Financial and Other Powers) Bill 2001, recently passed in NSW, has set an admirable standard in this respect. Structures of university governance need to be strengthened nationally, in light of the increasing commercial activity of all Australian universities.

If the enacting legislation of Victorian universities is amended to be consistent with that of NSW, a strong precedent would be set for university governance in the other states and territories. The majority of Australian universities are located in Victoria and New South Wales, strengthening the likelihood that amendment of the Victorian legislation to match that of NSW would lead to other states adopting similar governance mechanisms.

CAPA also believes that this codification of universities’ public responsibilities would be positively supplemented by the creation of a national universities ombudsman to facilitate additional public review of universities’ activities. However, CAPA notes the explicit exclusion of the composition and size of university councils from the terms of reference of this review and believes that this exclusion will limit the effectiveness of the review. Nevertheless, we hope that this review will help to increase the transparency and accountability of Victorian universities.