Chapter 2 – Mutual accountability: University governance and the size and shape of the University

Interior of the library in the New Law Building

To achieve the aspirations of our strategic purpose, we need effective structures for University governance, transparent rules for the allocation of resources and costs, and efficient administrative and professional support systems. Indeed, for the reasons that we made clear in the Green Paper, we are firmly of the view that without significant movement in these areas our core aspirations in education, research and community engagement will be considerably harder to achieve.

The Green Paper sought to demonstrate that our current governance structures, which have been weak in their ability to provide University-wide coordination of the activities of faculties and other academic units, have had two effects. On the one hand, a lack of central control has created an innovative, entrepreneurial spirit in the faculties that has given rise to some real achievements. On the other hand, the University as a whole is now encumbered by a proliferation of degrees, policies, procedures and delivery platforms, by the duplication of effort and programs, and by other effects of this lack of University-wide coordination and collaboration. Our challenge is to address these weaknesses, to build a greater sense of mutual accountability and collaboration, without undermining the dynamism of local innovation and creativity.

Similarly, rules for the distribution of resources and costs to faculties have not always been clear, and have involved many hidden cross-subsidies and potentially perverse incentives for faculties. One peculiarity of the rules, for example, has related to so-called ‘faculty reserves’. The faculties have regarded these as a source for future discretionary spending, while the University regarded them as a source of available capital for infrastructure development and spent them as such, usually with little University-wide conversation as to priorities. Another peculiarity has been a failure to allocate the costs of maintenance for physical infrastructure in any way that correlates with the amount and nature of the space occupied by an academic or administrative unit.

Finally, the Green Paper discussed duplication and complexity in our administrative and professional services. In part this situation has arisen because of a movement over the past 30 years towards the devolution of administrative and professional functions to faculties, with some return to a model of ‘shared’ or ‘distributed’ services in more recent years. The Green Paper acknowledged both that the current duplication and complexity in many of our administrative and professional services is costly and inefficient, and also that the faculties’ experience of a return to a more shared services model had not always been happy.

Feedback during the consultation process, while divided on the best way forward, clearly reaffirmed our view that these fundamental foundations for our work were far from optimal in their current form and in significant need of reform. In this chapter we address the specific issue of University governance. Issues concerning the transparent allocation of resources and costs, and of the appropriate organisation of professional and administrative services, are deferred until Chapter 5. A second strategy briefly outlined in this chapter addresses the management of the size and shape of the University, including the anticipated role of our new governance structures.

Strategy One: Refine our governance structures

Since July 2008, there have been three major initiatives in reforming the University’s governance structures. First, the Senate has reformed its committee structure to reflect more directly its various areas of responsibility. Second, the Academic Board has reformed its committee structure to focus its work on its core responsibility for approving academic policy and new degree programs, and for upholding academic standards.

Third, the authority vested by the statutes of the University in the person of the Vice-Chancellor has essentially been exercised through the so-called SEG and its various committees, which have taken responsibility for University-wide planning, decision-making and oversight. SEG is a fortnightly meeting of the Vice-Chancellor, Deputy Vice-Chancellors, Deans and other University officers. Through SEG, there has been participation in major decision-making from across the institution. This process is inevitably more time-consuming and complex than unilateral decision-making, but we have no doubt that it improves the quality of the decisions that we take.

In broad terms, the work of SEG involves:

  • overseeing the implementation of the University’s strategic plan
  • maintaining the risk register of the University and ensuring appropriate risk mitigation within the context of our overall Risk Framework
  • overseeing the curriculum and teaching, research and research training of the University in conjunction with the Academic Board
  • approving University management policies
  • approving the University’s budget according to the principle of the University’s economic model described below
  • prioritising digital and physical infrastructure projects
  • accounting to Senate for the financial and academic health of the University
  • with the Academic Board, undertaking a rolling program of reviews of the work of the faculties.

On the whole, the establishment of SEG has been a success. However, an important difficulty remains with our current arrangements. This is that SEG and its committees can achieve collective decision-making, joint planning, and mutual accountability among academic communities only at the highest level. It is really concerned with issues of University-wide importance. It cannot achieve effective collective decision-making, joint planning and mutual accountability among cognate parts of the University larger than the faculty, but smaller than the University as a whole. (By ‘cognate’ we mean communities that share sufficient commonalities to make it possible for them to undertake these functions together, either professional or academic commonalities.) Yet it is at this level that the failures of planning that we identified in the Green Paper have been most acute. Moreover, the extent to which staff and students of the University are more or less represented at SEG depends upon the vagaries of our historic faculty structure.

(a) The reform of SEG
The essential structural reform proposed in the Green Paper and developed in the consultation process is twofold. It is first that the work of SEG should be divided among various divisional boards, each reporting to SEG, and exercising its powers in relation to a particular group of faculties, or individual faculty. The precise terms of reference of each board and the principles for the conduct of its business, including the nature of faculty representation on each, will be negotiated between the relevant faculties in the fourth quarter of 2010. It is inevitable that, given their varied composition, the principles for their operation and their membership will vary slightly. But in broad terms, the boards will be responsible for the following.

  • Developing a strategic plan for the group as a whole, taking into account the strategic plan of the University and having regard to the financial and academic sustainability of the education and research activities of the constituent faculties. In doing so, the boards must maintain an appropriate balance between local, national and international perspectives and take into account the needs of industry, business and the community.
  • Developing a risk register for the group as a whole within the overall context of the University’s Risk Framework, building on the risk registers of individual faculties.
  • Encouraging curriculum development within and between the constituent faculties.
  • Promoting cross-disciplinary research and teaching both between the constituent faculties and with other parts of the University.
  • Agreeing research and teaching ‘compacts’ with SEG as outlined in Chapter 3.
  • Proposing new courses on behalf of constituent faculties to SEG and the Academic Board.
  • Approving, through the chair of the divisional board, the filling of existing posts and the creation of new posts, and accepting responsibility for ensuring that faculties seek to recruit the ‘brightest researchers’.
  • Exercising budgetary responsibility for its constituent faculties according to the principles of the University Economic Model described in Chapter 5.
  • Accounting to the broader University, through SEG, for the academic and financial health of its constituent faculties, and participating in reviews of those faculties with SEG and the Academic Board.

Although the precise terms of reference and principles for the conduct of these boards will vary, they will share some commonalities of procedure. Thus, each of these boards will be chaired by one of their members and will have secretariat support provided by the University administration. The chair will be appointed by the Vice-Chancellor for a term of three years, and the faculty from which they are appointed will have additional representation on the board to allow them to act as an impartial convener. The Provost will be ex officio a member of each board. Boards will normally arrive at decisions through discussion and deliberation, with a view to arriving at a consensus. In the event that a consensus cannot be reached, decisions may be arrived at on the basis of a form of voting (to be agreed by each board). The chair of the board would not normally vote except in the event of a deadlock, in which case the chair would have a deciding vote.

The second feature of the reforms proposed in the Green Paper as they have developed through consultation, is that these boards should be represented on SEG according to the relative sizes of the academic communities that they represent and that the committee structure of SEG should be reformed so as to discharge its work more effectively. The committees of SEG, besides the various boards, should be:

  • Education and Research Training
  • Research
  • Curriculum (including the work of the existing Course Profiles Steering Committee)
  • Finance and Infrastructure (including ICT)
  • International
  • Indigenous
  • Local and Rural Community Engagement
  • Human Resources and Equity
  • Information and Cultural Resources (Library, Museums, Theatres)
  • Alumni, Development and Marketing.

A Services Reform Steering Committee will also be established for the period of the services reform described in Chapter 5. In each case, membership of these committees should not be restricted to members of SEG, and members should be selected on the basis of expertise rather than as representatives of any particular part of the University. Each committee will be chaired by a member of SEG, and SEG will conduct its business through these committees.

(b) The composition of the divisional boards
As for the composition of the different boards, in the Green Paper we proposed a structure based on a unique version of the American model of a College of Arts and Sciences and professional schools. Our choice of this model was largely driven by the assumption that one of the great challenges facing the University was the need for a fundamental reform of our major generalist degrees. So while Arts and Science (and some related faculties) may not have been cognate in any usual sense of the term, they did share a common bond as major undergraduate and postgraduate faculties with a shared interest in the reform of our core generalist degrees. This proposal met with a mixed reception. While there was considerable enthusiasm for the College of Arts and Sciences model in many quarters, there were also many critics, some who doubted that Arts and Science had sufficient in common to achieve our aims, and others who feared that this model would set up an artificial distinction between generalist and professional faculties that might inhibit rather than foster collaboration across institutional boundaries.

As a consequence, the Vice-Chancellor issued a short options paper during the Green Paper consultation period outlining again the purpose of these reforms, and offering three new options for consideration. These options included two further variants of a College model and a third option, based on divisions of the University sharing professional or academic commonalities and responding to much of the feedback in the original Green Paper consultations.

Although none of these options commanded unanimity in the University community, the option involving divisional boards clearly commanded most support. It is therefore this option that we propose to adopt. One weakness of this structure is that it involves three divisions that are comprised essentially of one existing faculty. In these cases, a divisional board will still be created for oversight of the faculty, involving representation from other divisions across the University. For any division comprised of a single faculty, the chair of the board should not be the dean of that faculty but a dean of one of the other faculties (most probably one of the deans from the other single-faculty divisions), so as to honour the principle that the chair be an impartial convenor.

The names of these divisions have yet to be agreed, but it is proposed that they should be seven in number and comprised of:

  • Arts, Law, Education and Social Work
  • Science, Veterinary Science, Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources
  • Medicine, Dentistry, Nursing, Pharmacy
  • Architecture, Design and Planning, Sydney College of the Arts, Sydney Conservatorium of Music
  • Economics and Business
  • Engineering and Information Technologies
  • Health Sciences.

In the first two of these divisions, the connection between the relevant faculties is conceived of as intellectual, that they involve foundational disciplines and associated areas of professional education and research. In the third, the connection relates to common conditions of professional practice and shared needs in clinical education and research. In the fourth, a large part of the commonality between the faculties is the shared challenge of supporting and developing studio-based learning and creative practice-based research. The final three divisions consist of faculties the size of which make them viable as single-faculty divisions, although it is assumed that each will work closely with one of the first three divisions. In the second round of consultations, both Law and Sydney Conservatorium of Music made strong cases to remain as single-faculty divisions but, given the size of these faculties and the extent to which the logic of the reforms tells against having single-faculty divisions, these cases seemed less compelling than the arguments for including them in a multi-faculty divisional structure. As for representation on SEG, we propose that SEG should consist of the Vice-Chancellor and Deputy Vice-Chancellors, the Chair of the Academic Board, Chief Financial Officer and Director of Human Resources, four representatives from each of the first three divisions, three from the fourth, and two from each of the single-faculty divisions.

(c) Other structural issues
As well as these broad divisional groupings, the most appropriate place for particular disciplinary communities within a revised governance structure was also canvassed in the Green Paper. In particular, it was suggested that Economics and Econometrics might be better placed in a broader social science grouping in the Faculty of Arts. Similarly it asked whether it would be more appropriate for Agricultural Economics in the Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources to be aligned with an Economics grouping or an Agricultural Science one. We also raised, in passing, a question about whether Urban Planning would be better aligned to social sciences as well. In the course of the consultation period, however, a substantial joint submission from Urban Planning and Human Geography argued forcefully for an alliance of both these disciplines and their transfer to a social science grouping in Arts. This idea was opposed strongly by the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning. Finally, we raised the issue of a greater concentration and higher profile for social scientists in the University, particularly in the Faculty of Arts.

During the consultation period we were impressed by the extent to which staff were open to considering these questions at greater length. While some staff had understandable concerns about these proposals many were open to further consultation, in particular about ways in which such concerns might be addressed. Following the consultation period all these questions remain live, and over the coming months we plan to pursue further discussions with a view to resolving them.

Only the question of Economics seems to us to warrant a final decision at this stage. This is largely because it will have profound implications both for our business school and for the question of the profile of the social sciences in the Arts faculty. Delaying a decision on this question is likely to hamper our efforts to create, and build the profile of, a significant and coherent grouping of social scientists in the University. For this reason we propose that Economics, but not Econometrics, should be moved as a disciplinary group from the Faculty of Economics and Business, and that arrangements should be made with those faculties about the ongoing teaching of economics to first-year commerce and economics students. The Graduate School of Government and the Centre for International Security Studies should, similarly, be moved to a re-titled Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Thus we envisage that the Faculty of Economics and Business will be renamed, removing Economics from the title.

While the location of particular disciplines is an important consideration, at this point in the strategic planning process the critical issue is the finalisation of the divisional communities that will help to organise our future. In opting for a specific divisional structure, however, it is important to highlight a number of key features of this proposal. One way of approaching this question is perhaps to stress what this structure is not.

First, the divisional proposal does not involve a merger of faculties. On the contrary, each faculty will retain its distinct identity, continue to brand itself as a faculty and sustain its existing relationship with particular professional and external communities. This structure aims instead to bring faculties together into ongoing coordinated deliberation about academic and financial planning. Second, this model does not involve the imposition of an additional layer of bureaucracy, unlike earlier efforts to restructure the University. Here we propose that the divisions are unions of faculties, charged with promoting their singular and collective welfare. The bureaucracy associated with any divisional model would be minimal and all the deans of the faculties would continue to be line-managed by the Provost. The faculties would be partners assisting each other and assisting the University, not relegated to the margins of a centralised organisation. This is a form of university governance that clearly embodies our commitment to mutual accountability.

In order to achieve this strategy we will:

1(a) Create new divisional boards as committees of SEG to bring faculties together in a relationship of mutual accountability. These divisional boards will be comprised as follows: Arts, Law, Education and Social Work; Science, Veterinary Science, Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources; Medicine, Dentistry, Nursing, Pharmacy; Architecture, Design and Planning, Sydney College of the Arts, Sydney Conservatorium of Music; Economics and Business; Engineering and Information Technologies; Health Sciences.

1(b) Agree with each of the Deans of the faculties and with SEG the membership, terms of reference and rules for the conduct of the business of the divisional boards.

1(c) Charge the divisional boards with the task of overseeing the development of faculty strategic plans and developing a strategic plan for the division as a whole.

1(d) Restructure SEG to better represent the scale of University activity within the divisions.

1(e) Reform the subcommittees of SEG to reflect the full range of responsibilities of the reconstituted SEG.

1(f) Transfer the Discipline of Economics from the Faculty of Economics and Business to the Faculty of Arts, creating a new School of Economics within that faculty and renaming the Faculty of Arts as the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and the Faculty of Economics and Business as the School of Business (with the status of a faculty).

1(g) Transfer the Graduate School of Government and the Centre for International Security Studies from the Faculty of Economics and Business to the Faculty of Arts.

1(h) Determine the most appropriate place in the faculty and divisional structure for disciplines such as Agricultural Economics, Econometrics, Urban Planning and Human Geography.

1(i) Continue to discuss ways in which we might better profile and coordinate teaching, research training and research in the social sciences, particularly with key stakeholders in the Faculty of Arts. This might involve consideration of such questions as the structure of the School of Social and Political Sciences and the formation of a Graduate School of Social Sciences.

Strategy Two: Manage more effectively the size and shape of the University

Throughout the Green Paper we described the type of University that we wanted to be, and the various challenges that we faced in realising that vision. We did not specifically address the desired size and shape of the University. In setting this issue aside, it was not that we thought it unimportant. Rather, it was that consideration of that issue in the abstract, divorced from the detailed planning of the faculties and divisions, seemed to us unhelpful. Having outlined a new structure for University governance, however, we can begin to unpack the way in which it might be more effectively managed over the planning period.

The question of the size and shape of the University might be thought to have two dimensions: that of the fields of study in which the University wishes to engage, and that of its student mix as regards the relative sizes of different student cohorts. As regards the former, we said in the Green Paper that the tendency of the new structure for decision-making we proposed, “should be towards focusing, rather than expanding, our activity.” This was because the new boards we proposed for bringing together the work of various existing faculties were “to be given the important task of applying our statement of strategic purpose as a test of what they do.” But we did not ourselves make specific proposals either for fields of study from which the University should withdraw, or new ones that it should enter. That seemed to us to be appropriately the work of the newly constituted boards themselves, particularly in the process of developing faculty and divisional strategic plans that will be one of their first tasks. Our assumption, however, is that we will remain a comprehensive university.

Some readers interpreted our remarks in the Green Paper, together with our commitment to close contact between researchers and students, as an undertaking to reduce the absolute numbers of students within the University. This is not necessarily the case: the point is that we need better to manage both the size and shape of the student population profile across the institution. We retain the doubts expressed in the Green Paper that really significant overall growth is either possible or desirable. There are areas of the University in which overcrowding and staff–student ratios affect the quality of the education that we can provide and in those areas it is likely that we will contract absolute numbers. Nevertheless, given current structures for the funding of higher education in Australia, it is also likely that the University must remain large by international standards to sustain its research excellence. Moreover, while some parts of the University should doubtless contract, there are areas that have capacity for targeted growth, and the University could see some contained growth in numbers overall. The extent of that growth would obviously be dependent upon student mix and appropriate staffing and infrastructure support. It is our contention that these issues can really best be tackled, not by setting specific planning parameters at this point, but by establishing the process outlined below for the ongoing management of the size and shape of the University.

The only aspects of student mix for which, after consultation, we do think that we can set broad planning parameters at this stage concern the relative size of our undergraduate and postgraduate and our domestic and international student cohorts. Given the very high quality of our undergraduate student population, we believe it implausible that the University should move to a predominantly postgraduate student mix, though some movement in this direction is desirable. For this reason, we anticipate that during the planning period we will work towards a mix of between 60 and 70 percent undergraduate student load (the figure is currently 74 percent), between 10 and 15 percent postgraduate research student load (currently 9 percent), and between 20 and 30 percent postgraduate coursework student load (currently 17 percent). As for the domestic and international student load, we anticipate that international students will make up between 25 and 30 percent of our load (currently 22.3 percent), but are keen to diversify our international student cohort both by discipline (some parts of the University need to grow their international student numbers, while others need to maintain or reduce them) and by country of origin. A student mix such as this seems compatible with our statement of purpose and, in particular, with building strong local, national and international communities for the University.

Our proposed mechanism for better managing the size and shape of the University consists of two parts. First, the range of fields of study in which the University engages should be reviewed as part of the faculty and divisional strategic planning process that will be the first task of the new divisional boards. The question of the range of fields of study undertaken should then be revisited on a regular basis in the faculty review process that we have proposed. Second, SEG should ask the new divisional boards to agree student number targets with the Curriculum Committee on an annual basis and the Curriculum Committee should have responsibility for ensuring that those targets deliver a student load that is both educationally and financially justifiable. In reviewing the annual student load targets for each faculty and division, the Curriculum Committee should address not only the proposed mix of undergraduate and postgraduate, domestic and international student cohorts, of each unit, but also the extent to which it meets the targets proposed in Strategy Eleven for the admission of student groups currently underrepresented in our student population. In this way we believe that we can best manage the size and shape of the University in an academically and financially sustainable way.

In order to achieve this strategy we will:

2(a) Charge the divisional boards and the Curriculum Committee of SEG with the responsibility for reviewing annually the student load and mix to ensure educational and financial sustainability.