Six Secrets of University Power: A Student’s Guide

Six Secrets of University Power: A Student’s Guide

On doing your homework before sitting the activist exam.

Campus protests don’t often work. There’s an existing body of received wisdom about how to organise political movements on campus. I see student groups and organisations coordinating rallies, aiming to get the attention of Vice-Chancellors. Granted, I’m sympathetic to their aims. And I respect their ability to mobilise communities of engaged students.

But I’m not convinced they come anywhere close to achieving their goals. In June 2018, a student appeared in the ABC Q&A audience to ask USyd Vice Chancellor Michael Spence a question about the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation. In the course of doing so, she labelled Tony Abbott an ‘infamous racist’. The host, Tony Jones, shut her down with all the condescending arrogance of a powerful mediator, declaring ‘we’ll simply say we don’t believe that to be the case, and there is no evidence of it.’

And just like that, a legitimate critique of the Ramsay Centre was discredited in front of a national audience. Student activists innately occupy a role of great influence, because they are stakeholders in the university sector. But when they allow themselves to be cast as fringe radicals, this influence evaporates.

Let’s imagine a genuine scandal in university management, of the kind that could potentially justify protest. The Broderick Review on college sexual assault at the University of Sydney, the refusal of certain universities to divest from fossil fuels, and the University of Wollongong’s deal with the Ramsay Centre, are examples that come to mind. But the details don’t matter. The question that interests me is – how would students find out about what’s going on? What influence would we have, and what ought we to do?

When they allow themselves to be cast as fringe radicals, this influence evaporates.

To answer these questions, we need to know more about how universities work. Fortunately, much of this information is publicly accessible. The following six items will not be news to seasoned student activists; having calmly examined the inner machinery of universities, they may well have decided that outraged protest is the way forward for them. But for the rest of us, knowledge is power. It is far more difficult for university chiefs to dismiss the concerns of petitioners who have done their homework.

1. Universities’ founding statutes tell us a little, but their public nature tells us more.

A university is a public institution, created by a piece of legislation and governed by a council. This legislation (for example, the ‘University of New South Wales Act 1989’) prescribes things like how the chancellors are appointed, and how the council works. There are currently 39 universities in Australia, and each one has its own legislation. Crucially, since universities are public bodies, they have responsibilities under many other laws, to respect individuals’ privacy and to disclose other kinds of public information.

2. Financial reports give an insight into university structure, if you can understand corporatese.

The university’s compliance reports tend to be of limited use because they are written for auditors, not humans. But they provide some indication of the contours of the institution. In 2017, the University of New South Wales earned $2.12 billion and spent $1.96 billion. To grossly simplify the situation, this is about $40,000 per student per year. About half the income comes from the government and a third comes from international students. Less than 10% comes from domestic students, and less than 3% comes from the university’s investments. On the expenditure side, more than half goes to wages.

It is far more difficult for university chiefs to dismiss the concerns of petitioners who have done their homework.

3. Risk reports succinctly set out what universities care most about.

We don’t have to guess what university administrators’ priorities are. We know what they are, because their risk reports are public. For instance, UNSW’s Risk Appetite Statement lists six risks for which the university has ‘zero tolerance’: academic misconduct, funding from tobacco/cluster munitions, research misconduct, fraud/corruption, health and safety, and sexual assault/harassment. These are placed alongside a range of tolerable risks, relating to setbacks in KPIs like student satisfaction, graduate employment rates, and student retention.

Student activists might be interested in knowing that UNSW takes a hard line on tobacco, while happily investing in fossil fuels, because research granting agencies care about one and not the other. The Cancer Council, National Heart Foundation and NIH don’t give money to institutions funded by tobacco. Furthermore, the student satisfaction metric is concrete evidence of an in-built mechanism that links student opinion (as measured by biennial surveys) to university decision-making. In other words, our opinions really matter.

4. Freedom of Information requests reveal what universities won’t otherwise divulge.

The Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009 requires universities to provide information to the public upon request, including reports, policies and data that might otherwise be considered internal information. The cost to make a Freedom of Information request is $30, plus $30 per hour of processing work. The request must provide enough detail to enable the university to find the information, and it must be addressed to the university’s Right to Information Officer in writing. But the rewards can be substantial. In April 2019, Fossil Free USyd discovered that the University of Sydney invests $22.4 million in fossil fuel companies.

5. Court decisions dispel the myth of a monolithic university.

The details of universities’ various legal spats are splattered across the pages of law reports, publicly accessible on AustLII. In 2018, UNSW was caught up in a long-running legal battle with International House over the management of a student residential college. At the same time, the university was also found to have improperly leaked the personal details of a PhD student called Trevor Jackson. These judgments reveal something important about the inner machinery of a university. A university administration is simply comprised of individuals who make decisions. It is open to students to understand these decisions, and to call them out where they go wrong.

Yet if students want to change university policies, there is no alternative but to engage with the process.

6. University councils offer students a powerful position at the heart of governance.

There is no higher authority in UNSW than the University Council. Of the council’s fifteen members, three are officials and seven are appointed experts. But the remaining five are elected representatives, two of whom are students. This is no accident. Back in 1989, then-Education Minister Terry Metherell underlined in his second reading speech the continued representation of voices that ‘traditionally have been heard in the governance of universities’: academic staff, non-academic staff, graduates, and students.

There are limitations to these seats in the halls of power. Student representatives must act ‘in the best interests of the University’, and are bound by confidentiality. The substantial role of external appointments on the council is a testament to Metherell’s quaint notion that university governance should steer clear of politics, focussing instead on the university as a place for ‘the transmission of knowledge and civilised values’. Yet if students want to change university policies, there is no alternative but to engage with the process. For instance, the next UNSW Council meeting will take place on 17 June 2019, at 2pm in the Council Chamber.


University administrators are tasked with the management of diverse stakeholders in unenviable circumstances. Occasionally they will fail. When they do, the role of campus activism should be to guide them back on course, representing the voices of students above all. So, armed with this newfound knowledge, head along to your university’s next council meeting, appeal to your student representatives, and play your part in holding to account the universities that govern so much of our lives.

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