22 February 2023
The Hon. R.A. SIMMS:
This bill aims to increase accountability, transparency and inclusivity in our South Australian universities. The provisions of the bill would apply equally to the University of Adelaide, Flinders University and the University of South Australia.
It is a timely bill because it comes at a time when the Malinauskas government have been pushing their university merger plans, and I know that people working in the university sector and people studying in that sector are not calling for mergers and are not calling for increased rationalisation of services. What they are calling for is reform to ensure that our South Australian universities are governed in a transparent, accountable and inclusive manner.
In South Australia, we should aspire to having trustworthy and fair educational environments for students, faculties and staff. Universities with good governance promote trust and confidence in the institution and help prevent mismanagement. When universities are inclusive there are a diverse range of perspectives, and this leads to better decision-making and barriers to participation can be addressed.
This bill provides much better accountability, and this ensures that universities are responsible for the decisions they make. A code of conduct is one critical part of the accountability provided for in this bill. This would set a clear set of ethical guidelines for council members to follow. University students and staff are already bound by codes of conduct and this bill simply ensures that university council members are bound by a similar code.
Another issue the bill seeks to address is that of excessive salaries for university executives. As you would know, Mr President, I have advocated in this place previously for a cap on vice-chancellors' salaries and that is a feature of this bill. It is obscene that vice-chancellors in South Australia are some of the highest paid in the world at a time when we are seeing cuts to university staff and when we are seeing such a reduction in the quality of the experience of university students, so this bill seeks to remedy that.
It is worth noting that last year the Australian Financial Review reported that 11 vice-chancellors in Australia received over $1 million in salaries while making huge cuts, slashing staff numbers and putting infrastructure projects on ice, all under the guise of dealing with COVID. Last year, I asked a question on this topic of the government. The minister at the time replied that salaries of vice-chancellors are 'a matter to be determined by the councils of each respective university'. It is a bit like their approach to the banks, is it not: 'Oh, that's all too hard. Someone else can deal with that.'
The reality is that universities actually fall within an act of this parliament. We have the power to regulate the salaries of our university executives. They should be in step with community standards and that is precisely what I am proposing. After all, our universities should not be treated like large corporations. We should not see our university chiefs being paid like corporate CEOs. I think that what I am proposing in this bill, that is, that the salary of a vice-chancellor be capped at the same level of the Premier, would ensure that these positions are more in keeping with community standards.
Another critical element of the bill are the provisions that ensure that the voices of students are heard. There are 83,000 people attending university in South Australia each year. We need to ensure they have a voice at the decision-making table within our universities. One of the changes that was made in a previous parliament was a reduction in the number of student representatives and a reduction in the representation of staff on university bodies. I am proposing that be changed and that the representation of those groups be increased. As observed by the NTEU in their discussion paper on university governance:
The size and composition of a university governing body's membership should reflect the institution's mission and the diverse constituencies to which it is accountable.
The paper goes on to state:
University staff and student representatives are critical to good governance because they have expertise and detailed knowledge on university matters, its culture and operations, including in relation to teaching and research activities.
Six years ago, staff and students at Adelaide and Flinders universities were appalled by the changes made by the then Labor government to the composition of university councils. This is seeking to undo those changes. The bill would aim to ensure there is a better balance between staff, students and graduates at the university council decision-making table. The bill would provide for two members of academic staff, two members of general staff, three students (one of each being undergraduate and postgraduate) and three graduates from the university. To be really inclusive though, we also need to ensure that First Nations people have a voice at the table of university council. This bill also seeks to ensure there is a First Nations representative at the table of decision-making within these institutions.
Beyond the accountability and inclusivity measures in this bill, we have also provided for increased transparency. It is crucial that university council meetings are open to the public so that all stakeholders, including students, staff and members of the community, can engage in a meaningful way. After all, these institutions play a vital role in our civic life, they receive large amounts of public money and they should be accountable to the broader community.
The bill requires university council meetings to be held in public with three days' notice given. Councils would be able to move into confidentiality if required on the same basis as that which applies to local government meetings. It also ensures that minutes would be made available for public viewing on a website or as requested by an individual.
Beyond transparency, accountability and inclusivity, the Greens believe that our universities also need to deal with the challenges of climate change. One way to do that is by ensuring that they divest their links to fossil fuels. This ensures that they are walking the talk in terms of addressing climate. We are in the middle of a climate emergency. We need to hold our major institutions to account for their investments in companies that contribute to climate change. This bill will ensure that all three of our state's universities divest their assets, any assets that are held in companies involved in the extraction, processing or distribution of fossil fuels. Additionally, universities would be prevented from acquiring any of these assets.
This is a comprehensive reform that the Greens are proposing, but in the main the bill aims to ensure that the governance of our universities is based on best practice. The changes that are included in the bill are consistent with those that have been advocated by the National Tertiary Education Union, and we believe this is the direction that the university sector should be heading in rather than down the path of mergers that have been advocated by the Malinauskas government. With that, I will conclude my remarks.