Graduate Student Association Proposes Major Governance Reforms

8 March 2018

The Graduate Student Association (GSA) has unveiled plans to introduce a professional board of directors in sweeping changes to the governance and management of the organisation. The changes mean that the GSA will no longer be entirely led by elected student representatives.

The GSA is an independent student representative organisation which conducts advocacy and welfare programs for graduate students at the University of Melbourne. It receives approximately 15 per cent of the Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF) funding from the University, totalling around $1.9 million.

The proposed reforms comprise of implementing a two-tiered governing system, with responsibility for strategic planning, finance, risk management, organisational culture and oversight of staff being transferred to a new, seven-person GSA board, comprised of four professional members and three student representatives. The current GSA council, made up exclusively of elected student representatives, will continue to set policy on and retain control over matters relevant to student representation.

“Although we have extremely bright, driven people on council, we’ve frequently found that the demands of post-graduate study, work, internships, family and friends often means that even the most passionate Councillors simply do not have the time GSA needs them to commit,” said GSA President Georgia Daly.

Daly also stressed the difficulty of long-term planning within the GSA.

“Students are rarely on council for long. One to two year terms is not conducive to implementing effective long term policy and oversight of the strategic planning an organisation needs to be truly sustainable.”

The four professional members of the GSA board would be appointed by a special appointments subcommittee.

A current graduate student who has been involved in the graduate scene doubts that the changes will be effective.

“I’m unconvinced. Much bigger [not for profits] and community organisations have non-professional boards,” said the student, who wishes to remain anonymous.

“A professionalised board of directors is not necessarily the best use of the GSA’s time and financial resources for what it’ll actually practically change. They have a general manager and staff that perform these functions and if they think they have deficiency there they can hire another finance/governance person. Strategic direction still ultimately needs to come from the constituents of the organisations—through the democratic will of graduate students, so I’m not sure what in this context such a board will actually achieve.”

According to Daly, “The unfortunate truth is that most new councillors simply don’t possess the expertise to be a director of a not for profits, which involves knowledge of law, finance and HR to name a few.”

“The two-tiered model essentially separates the student representation side of councillors’ duties from their governance duties and allocates the governance duties to the board. [Council] continue to represent postgraduate students on University committees; we’ll continue to run our events, workshops and boot camps; we’ll continue to be your voice on campus. If anything, our capacity to do so will be even greater as our time will be freed up to focus solely upon representation.”

If implemented, the proposed structure will be a first for Australian postgraduate organisations. This two-tier system is the current standard for student representative bodies at universities in the United Kingdom.

The proposed reforms are the result of a year-long process in which GSA leadership engaged with experts on association management and conducted a thorough review of its performance. The model that emerged from this process was presented to students through a series of focus groups in early February.

“The overarching model presented to the focus groups was developed by council from [Australian Institute of Company Directors] best practice guidelines and the recommendations of the report presented to us by association management experts,” stated Daly.

Some focus group participants flagged concerns over the appointments subcommittee, which they were told was planned to include a representative of the vice-chancellor, citing worries about the independence of the GSA as a student representative body. The GSA president, however, has allayed fears that the University would have the power to veto GSA Board nominees.

“A four-person committee, including two students and the board chair, which requires a 75 per cent vote in favour of appointing a director is our preferred model,” stated Daly.

“We are carefully considering having one member of the appointments subcommittee being from the University and listened carefully to the concerns expressed by some student participants in our focus groups. The University is a key stakeholder in GSA, we wanted to recognise that interest in a way that doesn’t affect the independence of GSA in any way.”

The anonymous graduate student had a gloomy outlook on the aims of the changes.

“In practical terms I think it’ll mean that there’s a risk it’ll just be a clique of old people who think they know best, running the GSA as they feel like it. That’s what can happen in these kinds of spaces. Ironically, if the reason for this change is there’s a bit of a lack of confidence in the student council’s ability to provide full direction and oversight, then why is there confidence that they’ll actually properly oversee this new board? This proposal is strangely self-defeating, and could just end up with an unaccountable board and a disempowered student council,” they said.

Daly has announced that the GSA council intends to have the changes passed by special general meeting on 22 March, in time for GSA elections in May.

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