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Statutes Amendment (Universities) Bill

The Hon. A.L. McLACHLAN (16:07): I rise to speak to the Statutes Amendment (Universities) Bill. The lead speaker for the Liberal Party was the Hon. Jing Lee, who delivered a fine speech. I advise the chamber that I am a graduate of the University of Adelaide and continue to have a voluntary association with its business school. The effect of this bill has been well described by other speakers. I have a particular interest in the proposed amendments in relation to the governance arrangements. I have some questions that I ask be responded to by the minister at the second reading summing-up.

Our universities are critical to the future of the state and its peoples, in both economic as well as intellectual leadership. Both Adelaide and Flinders are creatures of statute and therefore, in one sense, can be considered assets of the state. I share the publicly stated views of many members of this place and the other place that we need to work with our academics and build great South Australian businesses from the product of their brilliant and diligent research. I acknowledge that it is not the sole role of our universities to fuel the corporate furnaces, but it is still a significant task of the modern university.

Universities also have an important role in the development of thought. As institutions, they should be a source of community pride and, as has been said, mirror the souls of their people. It is therefore vitally important that this chamber take a keen interest in the governance arrangements of its universities. We may have great pride in our universities, but this should not excuse them from criticism or proper examination. In other words, as community assets, they must be held to account by the people they purport to serve.

I have read the Hansard of the debate of this bill in the other place, and I have diligently read the minister’s second reading in this place. I cannot find any substantive justification for the changes to the governance arrangements. It seems that the following has been proffered: that the size of the council is unwieldy; that the new arrangements are consistent with contemporary governance structures; and the changes are consistent with the voluntary code of best practice. These justifications or reasonings, on what is a matter of critical importance to our state, are at best poor.

What leaks from the Hansard is that the universities requested the changes, so the government has decided to give them what they want without a moment of reflection. If you take that approach, you are in effect dismissing the right of the people of South Australia to have input into the running of the universities through their parliamentarians and parliament. I asked the minister to table the formal request by the universities requesting the changes, together with any written justifications for the changes that accompanied those requests or which may have been subsequently provided to the government. It is important that these are on public record in the event that we have to revisit this issue in the future.

I ask the minister to set out in detail the consultation that was undertaken, both internally and externally, on the proposed changes, either by the government or the universities themselves. I ask for details of what approval processes took place within the university before making the formal request to government. Was it the case of the current council reflecting on itself? I ask for any consultants’ reports or external advice the university commissioned to inform itself of the proposed changes to the governance arrangements. If the advice was internal, for example from a faculty member, then I seek that advice.

All governance changes have positive and negative outcomes. In other words, they carry an inherent risk. The key to successful leadership and management is to mitigate the weaknesses. What weaknesses of the proposed arrangements have been identified by the university itself, and how will they be mitigated? What are the problems with the extant governance arrangements that drove the request to the government for a change?

I also ask for specific examples of where the existing arrangements work to the disadvantage of the university. I note the criticism of the National Tertiary Education Union and I ask that the matters raised in their letter of 8 November to the shadow minister be addressed in the second reading summing-up. I understand similar correspondence was sent to the government. If not, I will provide copies of the letter. Extracts were read out by the shadow minister in the other place.

How will the parliament know, if the bill passes, that these changes will prove successful? Will the university report on the utility of the new governance arrangements going forward? How do we measure the success of these new measures? What are the governance arrangements for the other universities interstate? Are the proposed changes modelled on any other particular institution? If so, which one and why?

It is important for this chamber to have the justification for any changes to the governance arrangements clearly set out in Hansard. I further inquire as to whether these proposed changes are a precursor to council members being paid board fees. Also, whether there needs to be any legislative amendments or further legislative amendments to allow for payment of board fees, or is this at the university council’s own discretion?

Honourable members could not have failed to observe or hear about the difficulty CPA Australia has recently encountered regarding board structure, board fees and board behaviour. There have been many publicly stated concerns that universities are captured by the radical left and are no longer servants of the people they serve. There are worrying signs of increasing attempts to restrict freedom of speech on campuses, the limiting of the right to speak for students and academics alike.

As we have been asked by the universities to reflect on their governance arrangements, I seek assurances from the leadership that freedom of thought and leadership are still valued at the institutions in question, and ask what practical measures are in place to support them. I seek to understand how these new arrangements will support freedom of speech on campus and resist the longstanding practice of the radical left to dictate what is right to say or not to say. I look forward to the minister’s second reading summing-up.

See full session on Hansard