The genius of Jason Clare: Big HE governance change, but little unis can do

The Education Minister announces action on the University’s Accord that will corral criticism if there is not much new money in the budget.

Last Friday’s State and National Education Ministers meeting agreed to establish “an expert governance council”, to “develop ten priorities on which university governing bodies will be assessed.”

The minco communiques saves the faces of university chancellors by stating that it is based on a proposal from their Council, but it is also a second response from Mr Clare to Mary O’Kane and colleagues’ Accord recommendations.

Last August, Mr Clare appointed an officials group to advise on university governance and campus safety (FC August 9) and in November, an Ombudsman was created to take complaints from students, especially on how their institution dealt with sexual assault cases. 

Now the Minister is responding to long-running campaigns by the National Tertiary Education Union, which is permanently peeved that Councils have business-based members and by the scale of Vice-Chancellors’ pay. The Union, with ample evidence, also complains about universities underpaying staff.

The minco noted three top-level intrusions into institutional autonomy (FC’s words, not the communique) that demonstrate the government is already on the case. They are all significant expressions of no-confidence in university leaderships:

  • Expanding the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency’s regulatory remit to require HE provider processes “meet industrial and workplace obligations” including, “to faithfully implement enterprise agreements.” 
  • Obtaining independent advice to establish priorities “to ensure universities are exemplary employers”
  • The third point implicitly endorses the worst community perception of universities; that they rely on, but exploit casual staff – calling on institutions to supply more information to the government, “to increase transparency and understanding of workforce patterns and issues.”

To make it all happen, the members of the yet-to-be-announced “expert governance council” will set out ten priority areas, on which universities “will be required to report their compliance” paraphrased as:

  • Including at least one council member from outside the institution who has university leadership expertise
  • Governing bodies must engage and consult with the university community
  • Council appointments reflect the diversity of society and the characteristics of a university’s community
  • Gender-balance on Councils “in-line with jurisdictional and Australian government targets”
  • First Nations representation on Councils and engagement with university policies
  • Ditto for students
  • Ditto for staff
  • “A rigorous and transparent selection process” for new council members
  • Members have training “on the specific responsibilities and expectations of their role”

And then there is one that will really annoy Councils who cling to ideas about autonomy, but which they will live with: “demonstrate and maintain a rigorous and transparent process for developing remuneration policies and settings for senior university staff, with consideration given to comparable scale and complexity public sector entities, and ensure remuneration policies and packages are publicly reported.”

The bulk of universities will claim that they already meet the first nine requirements and will promise to do even better.

As for the tenth, they will wear it, on the basis that it could have been way worse if Mr Clare had wanted to score low-cost, high-impact political points.

This is superb politics by the Minister. None of these will replace Councils with Soviets to suit the NTEU, but they  are enough for the Minister to credibly respond to the comrades’ complaints when the Government does not give university communities everything they expect to get from the Accord. 

And university leaderships won’t complain loudly – media coverage of VCs pay and staff dudded on wages will make it hard to argue against any of what they are required to do.



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