But who will listen to the students?

Words by Lazaras Panayiotou

We are at a pivotal moment for student consultation. Following Faculty Board elections, we will see the imminent return of the Student Engagement Committee. For context, the governance of The University of Adelaide stems from a twelve-member University Council. This Council has an elected postgraduate student representative, Mr Dan Osei Mensah Bonsu, and an elected undergraduate student representative, Ms Leah Schamschurin. Academic and general staff also enjoy one representative each in the Council, and this arrangement is the same across Faculty Boards for both students and staff.

Unfortunately, by the end of 2018, we lost our Student Affairs Committee. This committee existed as a “conduit through which student concerns can be directly communicated to senior academic and administrative staff of the University” (Governance, advisory committees, student affairs committee 2018). Although this committee only met three times a year, it provided an avenue to connect with the Vice-Chancellor about student matters in an environment devoted to that cause.

In the fallout of the Student Affairs Committee, the Student Engagement Committee was born. This new committee met with the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) instead and continued to meet every quarter until the start of the lockdown resulting from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Then, throughout 2020, a larger student consultation group was formed that met with the Faculty Executive Director. Encouragingly, this group met weekly, although it moved to fortnightly meetings later in the year.

Beyond established committees, our university sometimes recognises the need for third-party conflict management, as seen following the unenthusiastic reception of RCC Fringe on campus by both students and staff. A third-party met with three distinct interest groups on campus following RCC Fringe 2019 — students, staff, and presumably upper management — with myself involved in this process. Unfortunately, what had yet to dawn on me was the tokenistic nature of this one-off consultation, which came after the fact. Since then, I wrote my thesis on youth political engagement, exploring the City of Salisbury’s incorporated Youth Council, and now have a new perspective to offer. Students deserve better, ongoing opportunities to influence the significant decisions made by their university.

Kara (2007), in the journal article “Beyond Tokenism: Participatory Evaluation Processes and Meaningful Youth Involvement in Decision-Making”, outlines five necessary ingredients she had observed from her 15 years of experience on this topic. They are the following:

  1. “resources and training”, regarding the financial flexibility of the program, allowing for the training of committee members in how to best approach university business and the rewarding of members for their time within reason;
  2. “legitimacy”, through stipulating consultative processes, term limits, and accountability with the body politic (those who the committee members represent);
  3. “youth-friendly meetings”, identified through the tone of meetings and how well they accommodate diversity;
  4. “effective meetings”, as determined by transparent procedures and outcomes; and,
  5. “shared decision-making power”, as realised through the weight of the voting power of committee members, their access to people with broader decision-making power, and how well their impact is visible within the governing of the University (Kara 2007, pp. 575–8).

Importantly, these ingredients should not be measured against policy but, instead, how “policy commitments are operationalised” (Kara 2007, p. 564). Meaning, even if something sounds good on paper, we can only measure it against the facts of its implementation.

So, how does the emerging Student Engagement Committee stack up? Well, we are yet to see. So far, on promises alone, its prospective revival heralds the return of a legitimate body meant for student consultation. Further, the Manager of Student Affairs confirmed that the frequency of meetings is increasing from quarterly to monthly, and its size will extend beyond the scope of its previous iteration. These changes are attributed to the success of the larger student consultation group temporarily formed last year.

Nonetheless, we are yet to hear if this committee will be joined by the Vice-Chancellor, unlike the defunct Student Affairs Committee. We cannot settle for anything less than what we once had — the Vice-Chancellor meeting with our representatives for the sole purpose of hearing from us — when it comes to our healthy access to people with broader decision-making power. Anything less constitutes a deterioration of what once was student consultation at our university.

This reimagining of the Student Engagement Committee represents an opportunity to create meaningful student consultation by listening to prominent and innovative research. Forgive me for being sceptical.

Nevertheless, regardless of what consultation universities provide, tertiary students will continue to protrude their influence on significant decisions. Even at this university, being an active participant has become synonymous with being an activist. Tertiary student culture has become embedded by activism, and unionism, as a response to the lack of meaningful student consultation within many universities, reinforced by a lack of interest in responding to issues important to young people unless there is a clear ulterior benefit. For proof, look no further than how our university refuses to divest its fossil fuel assets and our enduring defiance of this decision, reinvigorated by student-led success after success across Australian universities.

As things stand, our participatory governance only exists in our university’s policy. Often, noteworthy consultation is after the fact, invoking the proverb of it being easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to get permission. So, right now, I am locking in my answer to the above as ‘fundamentally nothing’. I challenge the university to prove me wrong.

References

Governance, advisory committees, student affairs committee 2018, The University of Adelaide, viewed 14 March 2021, <https://www.adelaide.edu.au/policies/625?dsn=policy.document;field=data;id=921;m=view>.

Kara, N 2007, ‘Beyond Tokenism: Participatory Evaluation Processes and Meaningful Youth Involvement in Decision-Making’, Children, Youth and Environments, vol. 17, no. 2, pp. 563–580.

Adelaide University student magazine since 1932. Edited by Ivan Jankovic, Stasi Kapetanos, Isobel Moore, and Michelle Roylance. Get in touch: onditmag@gmail.com