Uni Profits Trump Student Rights

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The education experience of students at Australian universities is under threat — but the problems extend far beyond the Labor and Coalition plan to cut $2.8 billion from the higher education budget.

University management are ratcheting up their push to limit the rights of students to be represented by independent and democratically elected organisations. At a time when we could expect more students to be looking for advocacy support and for services run by organisations they elect, universities are working on a control agenda that will mute criticism and limit service provision.

This week the battleground over student rights shifted to Macquarie University where the push by senior management to wind up the postgraduate body, Macquarie University Postgraduate Representative Association, is playing out in a disturbing way.

Tim Hendry, the president of MUPRA, was called to appear at a hearing before the Provost, Professor Judyth Sachs, on Monday. It is expected that the professor, as the senior academic administrator, will make a decision on MUPRA’s future next week, as well as a decision on whether to take disciplinary action against the association’s committee members for refusing previous demands to wind up and hand all assets over to the university.

Many see the tactics of the Macquarie University management team as the latest step in their long-term plan to abolish democratically elected student bodies on campus and take over direct administration of their funding. Last December they wound up the university’s undergraduate association.

Since then these same people have been engaged in some unsavoury politics against MUPRA, the only body at Macquarie University that is elected by the postgraduate and research students it represents.

University management has insinuated that the present and past MUPRA committees have been implicated in financial fraud or mismanagement and that MUPRA is unrepresentative and does not provide services to postgraduates.

MUPRA representatives have even been told that some of their actions are “criminal” and “referable to ICAC”.

With no referral to ICAC made, and no proof of misuse of funds these accusations are looking like harassment by a management team determined to have their way. Their key objective is to control student finances and replace an elected student organisation with one hand picked by those who run the university.

The hearing Hendry was required to attend was organised in the context of the university attempting to usurp MUPRA’s functions with an alternative, largely university-appointed organisation. The alternative body to MUPRA, the postgraduate committee of the new and unelected Student Advisory Board, has been set up because the deputy vice-chancellor Deirdre Anderson has said that it is a more “efficient use” of student funds.

Macquarie University’s hardline approach to winding up a democratic student organisation has been facilitated by federal legislation that has created space for universities to be increasingly involved in management and control of student organisations.

Students have a right to be represented by democratically organisations. At a time when higher education is facing severe funding cuts and the very nature of higher education is rapidly changing, an independent student voice is critical.

Without independent organisations, students will only have university controlled services to turn to. This means the university will be representing itself in any dispute with a student requesting their grades be reassessed, complaining about a university staff member or looking for some legal advice.

University students have a right to be represented within university bodies that make decisions on courses, resource allocation across campuses, assessment rules, and the many other aspects of higher education.

Macquarie University management may think they have orchestrated a means to be rid of another pesky student group by deciding the outcome of a “hearing” on what they deem to be MUPRA’s “unsatisfactory engagement”.

However, before they close the door on MUPRA they would be wise to pause and consider how this reflects on the university itself.

Silencing the independent student voice is not a good look for Macquarie University or any university. If a bedrock of education is fostering independent thought and action surely that has to extend to student organisations.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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