“The Importance of Governance at UWA” – March 2021 Newsletter by Dr Debra Judge, UWAASA V-P

Best wishes to all as we move into yet another year in unusual circumstances. I hope that you were able to get a bit of a break to do the things most important to you before our launch into this semester.  Please refer to the earlier post containing a presentation to UWAASA members by Ms Deirdre da Souza on “Governance at The University of Western Australia.”  Immediately, many may think, “I am an academic, what has the governance to do with me?”  To which I respond, an awful lot!  Understanding the governance structure allows one to identify where power concentrates, pathways to influence decision makers and, most importantly, where responsibility resides.  What is attached is Deirdre’s work; what follows are solely my own thoughts that grew out of the cogent explanation of University governance that she provided.

Da Souza identifies the three sources of authority in the University. The Senate is the overarching, supreme power. That body oversees the Executive which in turn manages the function and funding. The third body is the Academic Board. Many don’t realize that the Academic Board reports directly to the Senate; it does not answer to the Exec. In the best of circumstances, both Exec and Academic Board reflect their different responsibilities to the institution in seeking mutually acceptable outcomes to challenges. The Chair of the Academic Board is a representative of the academic body to the Senate as a whole.

Deirdre reminds us that, of the approximately 17 Senate members, only 7 actually are from the groups that, by statute, define the University (slide 6): 2 students, one elected academic, one elected professional staff member, the chair of the AB, and 2 members elected from Convocation. Members are instructed that they are not there to “represent” the body from which they derive membership but to act to the benefit of “the University as a whole.”   The Executive of the University is represented on Senate by the Vice Chancellor.   Members of Senate who are nominated by the Governor and chosen by the Senate itself outnumber members situated within academia. I have not seen any document that explains the process involved in these invitations or catalogues the particular expertise contributed by each member to the body. I do not suggest that these are lacking, it would just be more transparent (and perhaps inspire more confidence generally) to have that insight. I also wonder whether the current tendency to think of public institutions of learning as businesses may be insufficiently queried by a Senate with more business than University experience.

Given the diversity of opinion and the nuances of argument in the Academic Board, reporting the sense of the Board (in contrast to reporting only the outcome positions taken) can be important. I think that the minutes of the Board meetings become important not only reflecting the outcomes of discussions but the discussions themselves.

The Academic Board reports to the Senate and what is reported, and how it is reported, depends on minutes of those actions and presentation by the Chair of the AB.  You vote these people in; they can be more or less representative, and more or less effective. I happen to think that we have relatively effective representation at present, but we have had situations where academic voices were essentially silent (or silenced) and that was not a healthy situation as the governing body was not fully informed and the consultative imperative of good governance (slide 15) was weakened. There are few academic voices on the Senate, their impact is limited by their ability to persuade.

So, the Exec (VC) is reporting to the Senate and the Academic Board is reporting to the Senate and their areas of responsibility both differ and overlap. If one of those voices is silenced or barely heard while the other predominates, unfortunate lapses in information can occur and oversight by the Senate can become more difficult. To some extent they can serve as checks on each other. It appears that perhaps the Senate was unaware of operating budget overruns in the region of many tens of millions of dollars occurring year after year. Why? As academics, we did not make those spending decisions. We watched crazy advertising, extended marketing campaigns, and the expansion of the management, but our only interaction with budget was when we were told to cut our own. The annual financial statement is presented in a format that makes teasing apart where expenses actually concentrate almost impossible – while they are apparently typical of the sector, they almost appear to be designed to perplex. We might presume that the governing body of the University would take the financials apart with a fine-toothed comb (and be constituted with the expertise to do so), so how did overruns go on year after year after year? Was Senate presented with rosy scenarios? Many academics were very concerned with how and where funds appeared to be invested… but I am not sure that the structure and function of the Senate encourages the voicing of such concerns.   I have no idea, but we are all aware that staff are now paying and will continue to pay the price of that blind spot.

Governance – good governance – matters to every member of staff, every student, every academic practice at this university. We are often told that we must operate as a business. Furthermore, the Senate is likened to a Board of Directors. I have mixed feelings about this advice, but let’s take it to its logical conclusion.  The State legislation establishing the University of Western Australia gives the Senate full legislative powers (see slide 5). The Senate appoints, works in partnership with, and monitors the Vice Chancellor (slide 5). The Senate as a “board of directors,” is the ultimate responsible body … but to whom is, perhaps, less than clear. The Senate reports to the WA Parliament as a financial report to the Treasurer is encoded in the Act; any other reporting responsibility is obscure.  The Senate appoints a good many of its own members, it reviews itself, and produces a report of its self-evaluation. This differs from a Board of Directors of a business who would be required to hold shareholders’ meetings, and members of which could be voted off by those same members. At the very apex of command and control, the University is not structured like a business.  I give full credit to the current Senate which is undergoing an external, independent review; but this is to my knowledge the first.  A process of greater accountability and transparency to both the University and the wider community might result in greater understanding and cooperation.  Perhaps an annual shareholders’ meeting of the Senate would be a chance for the voices of the quieter, longer-term, less well-connected shareholders (academics, professional staff, students, and community) to be heard. Without those voices, the institutional memory, the voice of experience, the experience of those most impacted by shifting winds of management theory and styles… go missing.

So, what would my governance wish list be? 

  • An explicit discussion of how the University is, and isn’t, ‘a business like any other business’ would be a starting point.
  • Greater transparency in the financial status and budget allocations, presented in a reporting structure that makes sense in terms of University income streams and outlays, would facilitate a wider understanding of the conditions under which all work.
  • Most of all, more communication, both informal and formal, between the academic body and Senate. In most cases, the more knowledge the governors have of the governed, the better the decision-making. Communication also tends to foster a culture of more presumed good will and the ability to give the other body the “benefit of the doubt.” In an institution where the people are the institution’s greatest investment and greatest asset, this is key.

All of these reasonably small alterations would improve the working environment and improve staff morale – both of which foster the true purpose of the University: To produce knowledge, to transfer knowledge, and to seek wisdom.

Wishing all the best semester possible.  Please do contact UWAASA with your concerns, issues that you think we should address, reports of what is working well and what is not, and we hope to see you soon at a UWAASA function (watch this space).

Kind regards,

Debra Judge

Vice President, UWAASA

1 thought on ““The Importance of Governance at UWA” – March 2021 Newsletter by Dr Debra Judge, UWAASA V-P”

  1. Stuart Hodgetts

    Thank you Debra – a very insightful and informative precis of matters that I’m sure many at UWA were not totally aware of, and will very much appreciate.

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