Graduate Student Association Governance Changes

The Graduate Student Association (GSA) has announced its intention to make a number of significant changes to its governance arrangements. These changes are reflected in a new Constitution and graduate students are being asked to approve this change at a Special General Meeting on Thursday, March 22.

Broadly speaking the changes proposed have the following effects:

  1. Removing the elected Council of the GSA as the governing body and creating a new Board that will be comprised of three students and four or five non-students.
  2. Creating an Appointments Committee where non-student members can block appointments to the Board supported by student representatives.
  3. Limiting the role of the Graduate Student Council to issues associated with “representation”.
  4. Removing a commitment to promote free and accessible government-funded education from the GSA Constitution.
  5. Removing requirements from the GSA Constitution that are designed to ensure gender balance in student representation.

These changes have been proposed as a result of a review undertaken last year, with the rationale for the changes articulated as an issue of Council focus. Specifically, the GSA Council has revealed that they find the work of organisational governance too difficult and complex to continue to undertake. The GSA argues that the burden of the legal, financial, Occupational Health and Safety and other compliance requirements are too great for the Council and a new Board structure is required to ensure that a) these functions are subject to appropriate oversight and b) that elected student representatives should be allowed to focus on the work of representing graduate students.

While UMSU recognises the right of the GSA to determine its own structure, there are a number of questions that arise in relation to how the changes support the rationale that has been provided to graduate students. These questions and concerns are detailed below.

We encourage students to consider these changes and ask your own questions in order to participate in this process to ensure that the future of the GSA is one that they have fully engaged in.

Why does UMSU care?

In the first instance it is important to address why it is appropriate for UMSU to even comment in relation to these proposed changes.  There are two main reasons:

  1. UMSU represents all students at the University of Melbourne and graduate students are our constituents. While the GSA represents graduate students as well, UMSU aims to ensure that student representative organisations reflect and follow the wishes and interests of their constituents. For UMSU, this includes ensuring that there is a clear link between student control of organisational governance and the independence of student representatives in pursuing the interests of students with the University and State and Federal Governments; and,
  2. A core principle for UMSU is that student representative organisations should be student controlled. This does not mean that student representatives make every decision in an organisation, but that the broad power to determine organisational strategy and policy (functions of a Board) remains in the hands of students. At UMSU we recognise that there are limitations to the proficiency of student representatives in aspects of governance; however, we rely on our management and external experts to provide us with appropriate support and advice.

Why is the GSA not maintaining its commitment to free education?

In its current Constitution, one of the GSA’s objectives is the “promotion of free and accessible government funded education.” In the proposed Constitution this objective has been removed. In all of the material made available to students, the GSA does not refer to this critical change to the Constitution. It is unclear how this change relates to the refocus of the GSA’s governance load.

Should the proposed Board overrule the decisions of the Graduate Student Council, the potential consequences for students could be adverse.

This is not just an abstract political point.

In a Senate inquiry on the proposed changes to student debt repayment thresholds, the University of Melbourne has argued that these changes may alter numbers and student growth, potentially impacting the Melbourne Model.

This concern is specifically related to the uncertainty that it creates for students seeking to complete a graduate pathway, as the University will not be aware of the number of Commonwealth Supported Places available for students for more than a year at a time. This means that students at the University of Melbourne may be forced into a situation of choosing between full-fee paying graduate programs, studying elsewhere (where they may be able to access a publicly funded place), or discontinuing their studies altogether. In this context a commitment to promote free and accessible government funded education is critical for an organisation representing students.

It is also important to ask why the GSA has not mentioned this change in its promotional materials.

How independent will the GSA’s Graduate Student Council be?

The GSA’s Board will have the power to overrule the Graduate Student Council in circumstances where it determines that decisions of the Council would not be in the best interests of the organisation. UMSU is concerned that these powers are too broad and provide too much leeway for non-students to effectively have the power of veto over decisions of elected student representatives.

UMSU is also concerned that the proposed Constitution of the GSA does not sufficiently define the representative role of the Council. For example, the term “representation” is defined as including “representative activities” without making clear what those activities might be.

Why is the GSA removing gender balance provisions from the constitution?

The current GSA Constitution has a provision that seeks to ensure that there is at least 50% representation of women students on its Council. In communication with the GSA President, it has been raised that this provision still exists in the electoral regulations, however it has been removed from the proposed Constitution. While it is good to see that the GSA are upholding their commitment to maintaining gender diversity within their elected representatives, there may be concern that this value is no longer enshrined with the protections available to provisions within the Constitution. Effectively, these electoral regulations can be changed through the GSA’s Board without needing to be voted on by students.

Who gets to be a Member?

In the proposed Constitution the Chief Executive Officer of the GSA has the authority to accept or reject applications for membership, and to refer “contentious” applications to the Board for consideration. It is not clear on what basis an application for membership would be rejected or what constitutes a contentious application.

Why are these changes necessary?

Graduate students should be able to understand the exact nature of the problems that these changes are intended to address, and how the proposed solutions are specifically related to those problems. While the GSA’s current Council makes it clear that the burden of governance is overwhelming, it is unclear which of the GSA’s current operations lead to the kind of workload and complexity that necessitates the proposed changes.

UMSU notes that many student-focused services and programs utilised by graduate students continue to be provided by UMSU alone. These include our Advocacy and Legal Services, our Theatre Programs and the Rowden White Library. UMSU is, therefore, familiar with the governance requirements associated with the operation of a student organisation, and it is unclear how an organisation of the GSA’s size with its current scope of operations requires major changes to governance arrangements as currently proposed.

UMSU also thinks it is relevant to consider:

  1. What other options were considered; and
  2. Why UMSU was not consulted as part of this process?

All student organisations benefit from engagement with their constituents. We ask and encourage all graduate students to participate in these discussions around the protection of governance in their representative organisations.

 

Desiree Cai
UMSU President