Bill: Statutes Amendment [Universities] Bill (2nd & 3rd Reading)

Second Reading

Adjourned debate on second reading.

(Continued from 30 November 2016.)

Mr GARDNER ( Morialta ) ( 12:54 ): As shadow minister for education, I am very pleased to speak on behalf of the opposition in relation to the Statutes Amendment (Universities) Bill. This bill will reduce the size of university councils, will extend the tenure of student representatives on the councils from one to two years and will allow the tabling of annual reports in the parliament by the Minister for Higher Education and Skills instead of by the Governor. It will strengthen statutory liability protections for council members and senior officers, it will include provision for the establishment of common investment funds, and it will expand the delegation powers of the university councils. 

It will change the name of the Flinders University of South Australia Act 1966 to the Flinders University Act 1966, which I am sure will reduce confusion immensely for all the alumni of the University of South Australia and Flinders University of South Australia (soon to be known as Flinders University). It will also make associated consequential amendments. These are changes to the act that have been sought by the administrations of the two universities. 

For a number of reasons, they have argued that these measures will improve the functioning of those universities, and I think some of the measures are clearly and unambiguously of benefit, whether it is changing the name or strengthening protections and dealing with funds. The issue that has caused anxiety amongst some members of the university communities is, of course, that of reducing the size of university councils. 

In relation to this matter, the bill specifies that, notwithstanding the flexibility around the number of independent members, the University of Adelaide council will be changed from 20 to 21 members as it is at the moment to between 12 and 16 members, and Flinders University will change from 20 to 21 down to between 15 and 16 members. To put that into context, the University of South Australia currently has 15 to 16 members on its board. 

Regarding the make-up, the chancellor is one of those members at each of the universities, as well as the vice chancellor and the presiding member of the academic board. The universities have independently appointed members, eight in the context of the University of South Australia. For Flinders University, the bill would reduce that from 10 to eight. At Adelaide University, it is currently seven, and under the new proposal it will become up to seven; there would be some flexibility for fewer than seven to be appointed. 

In terms of staff representation, the University of South Australia has one general and one academic staff member, and Flinders University currently has two general and two academic staff members, which would be reduced to one general and one academic member. The University of Adelaide has two general and two academic staff members, and that would be reduced to one general and one academic staff member. 

In terms of student representation, the University of South Australia has one undergraduate and one postgraduate member, and Flinders University currently has three, of which at least one must be an undergraduate and one a postgraduate. That is also the case for Adelaide University. This bill will reduce that to one undergraduate and one postgraduate, so it is a reduction of one student representative. 

In terms of graduates, only Adelaide University currently has graduates as automatic members of the council. It currently has three, and that is proposed to be reduced to one. I suppose I should declare a conflict of interest here: as a graduate, I will have my opportunities for representation reduced by two-thirds, although I should indicate to the house that I had no plans to attempt to become one of those graduates, so perhaps it is not such a conflict. 

Regarding co-opted members, all universities have the optional position of one co-opted member. It is proposed that stay, although I note that at the University of Adelaide, certainly at the moment, in his endeavours to keep the size of the University of Adelaide council more manageable, the chancellor does not exercise that prerogative. So they currently have 20 and not the opportunity for 21. 

Obviously, the views of the administrations of Flinders University and Adelaide University were sought by the opposition. I can confirm that Flinders University has advised that the proposed changes to the Flinders University Act would create a contemporary governance structure, one better suited to addressing the major strategic challenges faced by the university in a rapidly changing environment. Similarly, Adelaide University is also in favour. 

Regarding the implementation of this matter, council appointment procedures have already taken place at Flinders University, so these changes will not impact on the Flinders University council until January 2019. Similarly, Adelaide University board members are also set to see out their terms, so if the bill passes as it is new members would take their places in 12 to 18 months. Otherwise, the council would be unaffected. 

Fundamentally, the question posed by the challenging parts of this bill is whether the universities wanting to run more efficiently, with more manageable councils, is worth the reduction in breadth of representation from impacted stakeholders. Are they best considered as businesses operating in a competitive environment, albeit with tens of millions of dollars of commonwealth government support, or are they traditional institutions with ingrained cultures and expectations of accountability that need to be maintained? I will answer that question after the lunch break. I seek leave to conclude my remarks. 

Leave granted; debate adjourned. 

Sitting suspended from 13:00 to 14:00 .

Adjourned debate on second reading (resumed on motion). 

Mr GARDNER ( Morialta ) ( 15:36 ): Prior to the adjournment, I was commenting that there is tension between our desire to ensure that the institutions that Adelaide and Flinders universities represent maintain the levels of representation they have had historically, while on the other hand wanting them to run as efficiently and effectively as possible. Obviously, as our universities are amongst our state's most significant employers, the decisions they make will have wide-reaching consequences, and we want their governance to be as strong as possible. If the changes sought by the university administrations are seen to improve those administrations and the impact those universities have on our state, that is the other side of the equation. 

I note that the minister, in her second reading speech, made a couple of points in addition to those I made before the break. I will quote one very small section of her speech in which she identified these changes will be, and I quote: 

...consistent with Universities Australia's Voluntary Code of Best Practice for the Governance of Australian Universities. Importantly, this will be achieved while broadly maintaining the existing proportions of staff, student and appointed independent members on university councils. 

Extending the tenure of student representatives will similarly improve corporate governance by providing additional professional development opportunities. 

Extending the tenure of those student representatives from one year would clearly have that outcome. 

There has been a level of opposition to this aspect of the bill. It is something that a number of members have thought long and hard about and have met with a number of people about. The Leader of the Opposition and I, even prior to the bill's introduction to the house, met with representatives from the National Tertiary Education Union from both Adelaide and Flinders universities to discuss their points of view. I think it is important that, given the tension that exists between the two sides of the debate, that side of the argument be registered on the parliamentary record. 

A number of members of parliament were also contacted by constituents whose correspondence was broadly similar. I will not say that it is just a form letter because I noted people putting some of their personal reflections in addition to the standard words. For the record, I will read one of the pieces of correspondence I received to give the house an idea of the alternative point of view. It states: 

Dear [member for Morialta], 

I am writing to you because I have become aware that the government is currently considering changes to the University of Adelaide Act. You will soon be presented with these changes in the Statutes Amendment (Universities) Bill 2016. 

As a student and casual staff member at the University and a resident of your electorate I am seriously concerned about the content of these changes, and the secret process the University and Government have used to rush these changes through. I have contacted [the minister] and received inadequate response to date. 

This Bill seeks to reduce the number of elected staff and student representatives on University Council—yet staff and students at the University have not been consulted over the changes, or, in fact even notified of them. This is most likely because the University knows that staff and students do and will oppose these changes. 

For these reasons I ask that you vote against this bill when it enters the parliament. 

We received some correspondence from some staff members, at least one student and the union. It is probably the union's correspondence that will take the bulk of the remainder of the time that I will share with the house this afternoon because I think it is fair that their points of view be presented. 

I propose to read a piece of correspondence from the National Tertiary Education Union, dated 8 November 2016 and signed by Felix Patrikeeff, President of the NTEU, University of Adelaide Branch (and, I remember from my own distant past, a fine lecturer) and Andrew Miller, President of the NTEU, Flinders University Branch. They write to me as the member for Morialta regarding changes to the Flinders University and University of Adelaide acts. The letter states: 

It is anticipated the Parliament will soon be presented with Bills to amend the Flinders University and University of Adelaide Acts. The primary objective of these Bills is to reduce the number of elected (staff and student) members on the Flinders University and University of Adelaide Councils. We ask that you oppose these changes. 

The process with regard to this matter has been floored from start to finish. At Flinders University, the proposed changes went to Parliamentary Counsel without any staff or student consultation. It was only after written insistence from [the minister] that the University engaged in 'consultation'—the outcome of which revealed resounding opposition from staff and students to the reduction of elected positions on University Council. The changes proceeded regardless. 

Consultation at the University of Adelaide has been non-existent, and in fact, the Chancellor Kevin Scarce, who requested the government make these changes, has not even announced the plan to University staff or students. 

I skip forward to the next relevant part: 

The [NTEU] is not a politically aligned union. As a result we pay attention to the positions that all MPs and parties take on issues that are important to our members and our sector with a view to working strategically with those that support higher education workers. 

The preservation of current representation levels in South Australian universities is vital to the health of the university's themselves and the public more broadly. The peak university governance body is its council. To fulfill its responsibilities, a university council needs to be widely informed of the operations of the university. This includes having knowledge of and direct access to the perspectives of its stakeholders. Such knowledge is vital to the effective governance of complex public institutions like universities. It is staff and students who provide on-the-ground wisdom and the diversity of voices to university councils. Further, the removal of elected (rather tha n management appointment) councillors further reduces public accountability of a public, but highly autonomous, institution. Without accountability to the public, autonomous (yet public ally funded universities) will be free to adopt policies that may not be in the interests of South Australia and families. 

We urge you to block the passage of any changes to the University Acts that r educe staff and student presence on the two councils. The relevant changes may seem small but the consequences will be significant. 

And so on. Then there is the correspondence they sent to Flinders University, which is largely of a similar nature. Subsequently, we received further correspondence that goes into the details of the drops in percentage of councils in each university from the various groups, which I went through prior to the interval. The union went on to argue in a letter dated 9 February—just last week—from Annie Buchecker, the NTEU Industrial Officer, which was sent to me by John Pezy from the NTEU: 

There is no research that links a reduction in a university council 's size to better performance. Indeed, research warns that given the complexity of public organisations like universities, any reduction that threaten s stakeholder representation is likely to be counterproductive. Furthermore, research points to the fact that the application of a corporate model of governance based on shareholder interests is inappropriate for the governance of organisations that are stakeholder responsible. 

She goes on to quote some other research. That is the argument that was put to us by the union. I think the most interesting correspondence that came to me actually came from one of those union representatives drawing my attention to a YouTube clip of the University of Adelaide Community's annual meeting. I thank them for passing that on. I thought it was useful, and I also applaud the University of Adelaide for putting that meeting online. I think that is a very positive step in community engagement by the University of Adelaide. 

The Chancellor of the University of Adelaide, Kevin Scarce, and the Vice-Chancellor, Warren Bebbington, were presenting their strategic plan, talking about the building reviews and, of course, there was discussion about this piece of legislation. This was on 12 February, so a very recent meeting. I think it is worth sharing with the house some of that discussion, which probably brings us to our conclusion. 

I acknowledge Adjunct Associate Professor Dr John Keeler AM, who raised a series of concerns relating to the self-referential nature of the council appointees, and Chancellor Kevin Scarce responded that, as the university's chancellor, he is not exercising his right to appoint one member because his view was that the council was too large and not able to carry out identified roles effectively—21 members is unwieldy. 

Former governor Scarce went on to say that governance of a billion dollar enterprise is compromised by the size of the existing council. The quality of the discussion capable of being held about the complex issues that that billion dollar enterprise necessarily generates is compromised by having 21 people around the table. The reduction is across all aspects of council. Proportions of elected members are maintained. He went on to say that he makes no apologies for trying to get a more effective council. 

Another question—and I took the time to make sure I got this as an exact quote—put to the chancellor was: 

The minister told parliament that the universities put in place their own engagement processes to engage with their communities and explain the proposed amendments. I ' m just concerned that what you ' re telling us is that the university council has gone ahead and made these decisions without actually consulting the community . S o I ' m wondering did the university mislead the minister or did the minister mislead the parliament? 

Kevin Scarce responded: 

I can tell you what we have done. I'll leave the minister to explain what she ' s done. 

Of course, the minister may or may not take up that invitation in her response. He went on to say: 

The governance responsibility of council is a responsibility of council. I don't see a need for coming back to the broader community to have a discussion on how council should go about its business.... The very engaged discussion that we had at council about its governance responsibilities in my view was the appropriate place to decide how the council should go about its governance. I don't see a need to have to go to the broader community to have that engagement. 

Later he went on to say in his conclusion: 

Going towards the same size council as currently operates at UniSA . It's not a dramatic change in numbers. It's attempting to improve the dialogue and the contribution that council members can make at meetings. 

The fact is, of course, that the union came to see the opposition some months before the minister introduced the bill into the parliament and described the bill fundamentally in the terms in which the bill eventually was presented to the parliament, so I am not convinced by the argument put in the question to Kevin Scarce that there was no community consultation at the University of Adelaide because clearly there must have been some level of community consultation. The union brought it to our attention three months before it got to the parliament. However, clearly there is a level of anxiety at the university that maybe could have been handled differently. 

Fundamentally, I think this comes down to this: does the necessity to maintain a certain number of councillors from those representative groups at their current status outweigh the benefit of having what Kevin Scarce describes as a more efficient and less unwieldy council, a council capable of providing governance to a billion dollar enterprise? I am unconvinced, and the opposition is certainly at this stage unconvinced, of the union's argument that research only shows that large instrumentalities need to be governed by large representative stakeholder groups. I am not sure that is the purpose for which the university council goes about its business. 

With that in mind, of course the opposition will be supporting this bill through the House of Assembly. In good faith, I should say that if amendments are proposed we will consider them in good faith, and that position may possibly take place between now and the Legislative Council. However, there is nothing that I have had presented to me at this stage that would indicate that the amendments would outweigh the benefits that might be put forward through this bill. 

Fundamentally, our universities, the three significant public universities in South Australia, are to be cherished and encouraged. They employ tens of thousands of our people. They educate tens of thousands of our young people. They generate billions of dollars of economic activity for South Australia at a time when South Australia is gripped by nothing less than an unemployment crisis. It is a situation where our very future is being challenged by the lack of confidence in that future. 

Where there is a lack of investment in our economy and potential future jobs growth we really need to be looking at every opportunity to run our institutions that do generate jobs and growth efficiently. I am not sure that having a 21-member council is the right size. I think that the propositions put forward by the universities and that the government has also considered and put forward are potentially more compelling, and so the opposition will be supporting the bill through the House of Assembly.

Adjourned debate on second reading. 

(Continued from 1 March 2017.) 

The Hon. S.E. CLOSE ( Port AdelaideMinister for Education and Child Development, Minister for Higher Education and Skills) (12:02): I would like to thank the honourable members who have contributed to the debate on this bill and note that the opposition will be supporting the passage of this legislation. The nature of the relationship between state governments and universities is complex. 

Universities are of enormous importance to state economies. They train a high proportion of the workforce, they produce research that advances human knowledge and often generates commercialisation opportunities of economic and employment significance. They educate the future leaders of industry, labour and the professions. They have educated many of the people who sit in this chamber. They bring thousands of students from overseas to be educated here, students who not only represent a big part of our economy but internationalise us while they are here and remain connected with us when they return home. 

Our universities have educated political and business leaders around the world, and in nearly every country we can find people who have been educated by our universities, making life better for others as doctors, nurses, teachers and many other professionals. South Australia without our universities would be unthinkable, yet much of government interaction with these institutions is via the federal government. It is that government that defines how universities can charge fees and makes a large contribution to them. It is that government that manages quality assurance for all universities in Australia. It is that level of government that largely manages research funding mechanisms. 

Each of our universities is in active competition with all other world-class universities for the best researchers, the best teachers and the best students. What we all want in South Australia is for our universities to thrive. It is in that context that the requests from the Flinders University and the University of Adelaide for changes to their acts were considered by the South Australia government. They had each formed the view that their councils would operate more effectively if the overall size of the membership were reduced to be close to the size of the council at the University of South Australia. 

Given the reasonableness of the nature of the request, the consistency with the more recently created public university in South Australia, the consistency with the Universities Australia Voluntary Code of Best Practice for the Governance of Australian Universities and the maintenance, in essence, of the proportions of the membership drawn from the student body, the staff body and external members, the government has no reason to object to the request. 

I recognise that there is some concern about this change from those who represent students and staff at each university. I acknowledge that this concern comes from a genuine desire to have constructive members of the two councils, who are drawn from the universities themselves. Recognising the importance of this matter for each university community, I asked both what form of communication and consultation had occurred, and I have received correspondence from the Vice Chancellor of Flinders University and the Chancellor of the University of Adelaide about the manner in which they have chosen to undertake that process. 

Being satisfied that the universities had made this request for an act change after careful deliberation, and that the student and staff bodies of the universities are now aware of the proposed changes, I see no reason to delay or refuse the request. I therefore commend the bill to the house. 

Bill read a second time. 

Committee Stage 

In committee. 

Clauses 1 to 15 passed. 

Clause 16. 

The CHAIR: We have two amendments in schedule (1) in the name of the Minister for Higher Education and Skills. Can we move amendments Nos 1 and 2 together? Do you wish to speak to them as well? 

The Hon. S.E. CLOSE: Would you like me to speak in order to explain them? Ms Chapman: Yes. 

The Hon. S.E. CLOSE: I move: 

Amendment No 1 [HiEdSkills–1]— 

Page 7, line 35 [clause 16, inserted subsection (1)(d)]—After 'committee' insert: 

(which consists of the Chancellor and 6 other persons, 3 of whom are appointed by the Chancellor and 3 by the presiding member of the Graduate Association (but at least 3 members of the selection committee must be graduates of the University) in accordance with guidelines determined by the Council) 

Amendment No 2 [HiEdSkills–1]— 

Page 8, after line 12—After the present contents of clause 16 (to be designated as subclause (1)) insert: 

(2) Section 12(6)—delete 'subsection (1)(b)' and substitute: 

subsection (1)(d) 

There are two proposed government amendments to the bill, both relating to clause 16, about the independent appointed members of the University of Adelaide Council. The first proposed government amendment reinserts language currently in the University of Adelaide Act 1971 about the composition and constitution of the selection committee that recommends independent appointed members to council for appointment. 

The second proposed government amendment updates a reference to section 12(1) of the University of Adelaide Act in section 12(6). Section 12(6) prevents the selection committee from recommending one of its own members for appointment to the University of Adelaide Council. The reference in section 12(6) needs to be updated to continue to have effect, as the bill would repeal and substitute a new version of section 12(1) with different numbering. Both proposed government amendments are minor issues that were only identified after the introduction of the bill, but they will ensure the continued effective operation of the act. 

Mr GARDNER: I do not really have any stress about the second amendment, as far as I can tell. In relation to the first, on what basis was this change brought about? What was it that led the minister to identifying that the government wanted to amend the bill?

 The Hon. S.E. CLOSE: It was a drafting error where, inadvertently, we left out something that we needed to preserve when we changed the relevant section. 

Mr GARDNER: When did the government decide to make this little change? 

The Hon. S.E. CLOSE: I believe we filed these amendments on 15 February and decided that not long before. 

Mr GARDNER: I see that, yes. Notwithstanding that, we will double-check this between the houses, but I cannot see any reason why the opposition would oppose these amendments. 

The Hon. S.E. CLOSE: I thank you for your indulgence; I appreciate that. 

The Hon. S.W. KEY: I feel compelled to make a comment about this legislation. I cannot really speak with any authority about Adelaide University, having never attended there, but I certainly have been a longstanding member of the Flinders University campus both as a student and also as a committee member and classification review officer for Flinders University. I should say that, as general secretary of the students' association, I was also a member of the Flinders University Council. 

Having had that experience, I feel very concerned about the reduction of members on particularly the Flinders University Council, particularly the staff representatives and the student representatives. I just want to register that I have concerns with this. I understand that there has supposedly been consultation with both the staff and students. I think the term used by the minister was that the university had advised they had made those two bodies 'aware' of the proposed changes. 

I think this is a very good case of people not being consulted but having information shared with them, which seems to be a characteristic in a whole lot of areas, not just in the higher education sector. Obviously, I am not going to oppose the bill because our caucus has decided to support it, but I need to mention that I have concerns with these particular amendments. 

Amendments carried; clause as amended passed. 

Remaining clauses (17 to 20), schedule and title passed. 

Bill reported with amendment. 

Third Reading 

The Hon. S.E. CLOSE ( Port AdelaideMinister for Education and Child Development, Minister for Higher Education and Skills) (12:12): I move: 

That this bill be now read a third time. 

Mr GARDNER ( Morialta ) ( 12:12 ): Very briefly, I wish to thank the government for progressing this matter this week. This has been on the Notice Paper for some time. Following the member for Ashford's comments, as a former graduate of Adelaide University who did subjects at Flinders University, I feel a very deep personal connection to both campuses. I spent at least a year longer there than I needed to. 

I was also, as was the member for Ashford, elected by my peers to serve in a students' association at Adelaide University, but not to the lofty heights of general secretary. As a Liberal candidate for student selection on campus in the late nineties, it was not the ideal target market to run for president, but others have done well since and I congratulate them on that. 

My fundamental desire, personally and as the shadow minister for education in South Australia, is for our universities to shine, for our universities to prosper, for our children to get the best possible education and for those universities to attract international students, to attract research funding and to attract the extraordinary opportunities that our higher education sector can deliver to South Australia in educational terms, in economic terms and also in terms of the cultural impact on our whole state. I hope that this bill in some small way will help them achieve that. 

Bill read a third time and passed. 

The Hon. S.E. CLOSE: Madam Deputy Speaker, I draw your attention to the state of the house. 

A quorum having been formed: