The shadowy decision-making process that led to a proposal to merge the two largest universities in South Australia has demonstrated an urgent need for university councils to be more transparent and accountable to the public, according to new analysis by the Australia Institute.
The universities of Adelaide and South Australia have refused to release the business case for the proposed merger, fuelling speculation the move has been primarily motivated by attracting more revenue from overseas students rather than improving education or research outcomes.
Currently, university councils, which make decisions about hundreds of millions of dollars in public funding, are not required by law to release the minutes of their meetings, which denies the public an opportunity to understand how they make decisions.
In a new report, ‘University councils, transparency and Adelaide University merger’, Australia Institute research shows that:
- 80% of Australians either agree or strongly agree that the minutes of university council meetings should be published.
- When asked what university councils should focus on, 66% of Australians said improving education for students, 17% said improving research outcomes, and only 6% said increasing university surplus.
- In a separate, state-based poll, 86% of South Australians agree or strongly agree that the details of the business case for the merger should be made public.
“Australian taxpayers fund our universities and they are entitled to understand how decisions are made. At the moment university councils are free to make significant decisions without proper transparency or accountability,” said Dr Morgan Harrington, Postdoctoral Research Manager at the Australia Institute and report co-author.
“The South Australian government has pledged nearly $445 million towards the proposed university merger, but South Australians don’t even know what’s really motivating the push. Many people involved in the sector believe the merger is more about attracting revenue from overseas students than improving education or research. As things stand, we don’t actually know, because the decision-making process has happened behind closed doors.
“What are the universities trying to hide? If their decisions are in the best interests of students, staff and the broader public then why not be up front about them?
“University councils make massive decisions about how hundreds of millions of dollars in public money is deployed. We all deserve to understand how these decisions are made.”
The new Australia Institute report proposes reforms that would increase democratic accountability and transparency within university Councils, including:
- Amending the acts that regulate public universities to require university councils to publish the minutes of their meetings.
- Amending the acts that create and regulate public universities to ensure that the majority of university council members are elected by university staff and students, and are drawn from candidates with expertise in education and the public sector.