Feds Weigh In To Macquarie University Legal Dispute

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A protracted dispute between a student representative organisation and major Australian university has drawn the attention of Federal MPs, just one week before the matter is due to appear before the NSW Supreme Court.

Seven current and former students associated with the Macquarie University Postgraduate Representatives Association (MUPRA) will face court on Wednesday next week as their university attempts to have the organisation shut down, and gain access to over $500,000 still held in its accounts.

Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon this week tabled a motion in the Federal Senate calling on Macquarie University to drop its legal action and remove a freeze on MUPRA’s accounts, describing the dramatic developments as “unprecedented”.

“It is important for those of us who support independent, vibrant, democratic student organisations to stand up against attacks like this, otherwise they may start becoming a common occurrence,” Rhiannon told parliament.

Details of the university’s case against the students remain scarce, but it is understood accusations of financial mismanagement will be made.

Tensions between MUPRA and senior management at Macquarie have been long running, and appear to centre on a request made by the university for certain funds to be returned.

In a 2012 announcement, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Deidre Anderson accused MUPRA of failing to provide information about its financial situation and wrote to the organisation demanding it return to the university all funds held.

Anderson claimed the large sum held by MUPRA was provided to it by the university prior to 2007.

CAPA, the peak body for postgraduate student associations, has thrown its support behind the so-called ‘Macquarie Seven’, accusing university management of a cash grab.

CAPA President Meghan Hopper warned the case could set a dangerous precedent.

“Of the $500,000 that Macquarie University Postgraduate Representative Association currently has held in a bank account that they can no longer access, some of that money was earned through frugal investment in high interest bank accounts and through the offering of events and services,” Hopper said.

Macquarie University is currently in the processes of shoring up its new student consultative body, intended to replace previous student run organisations including MURPA.

In May last year, Rhiannon accused the university of attempting to undermine independent and democratically run student organisations.

CAPA have also expressed their concern.

“If a Court accepts that it is appropriate for a University to simply replace a union with an ‘advisory body’ chaired by a person hand-picked by the University and directly responsible to the Chancellor, that will be a tragic step in the history of student unionism in Australia and will send a very dangerous message about independent representation and advocacy,” Hopper said.

The case also poses a significant financial risk for the students named in the proceedings. MUPRA is not an incorporated body and the students could be held personally liable for costs accrued by the university during the litigation.

While support for the students is growing, Rhiannon’s motion failed to gain support in the federal Senate. Queensland Senator Claire Moore told parliament the ALP could not back the motion.

“Of course Labor supports the autonomy and independence of student associations. However, we believe that this motion could actually be counterproductive in resolving the important issues of the university,” Moore said.

Macquarie University has previously experienced serious problems regarding the misuse of funds by student organisations after one representative came to hold a range of key positions in the early 2000s.

Liberal student Victor Ma was booted from multiple representative positions in 2007 after allegedly engaging in stacking, preventing other students from running for positions, and eventually transferring $200,000 out of one organisation’s account.

Ma’s wife was employed on a $75,000 salary by the student body he ran.

While the university ignored concerns raised by students about Ma’s behaviour and at one point helped him suspend elections, it swiftly removed Ma in 2007 after he stood against a cost saving measure that involved the amalgamation of several student bodies.

Ma’s demise effectively marked the end of an independent undergraduate representative body on campus.

There is no suggestion that Ma’s case is in any way linked in the current dispute, but students at Macquarie say the university has been left suspicious of student organisations. They also believe Macquarie is overly hostile to public criticism and wary of organisations in a position to do so.

Macquarie University declined to add comment and directed New Matilda back to a release published in April 2013 http://www.announcements.mq.edu.au/others/mupra.

Authored by Anderson, it said MUPRA was “not meeting its financial governance obligation” but did not go into further detail.

Tertiary education issues have dominated federal politics in recent weeks, with Education Minister Christopher Pyne finally introducing his package of deregulation reforms to Parliament last week.

Liberal MPs have also been going after old enemies with Senator James McGrath promising to introduce a private members bill to abolish the Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF), Labor’s watered-down version of Compulsory Student Unionism.

With questions of student money and consultation procedures in the mix, SSAF distribution is likely to become an important talking point in the Macquarie University case.

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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