The Most Important Election You’ve Never Heard of: University Council, Explained.

The image of Brian Schmidt cackling with supervillian-esque menace while signing orders to knock down residences, schedule weekend exams or destroy ANU Bar is an appealing one. But the great and momentous decisions of ANU aren’t made from an Iron Throne, Death Star or Oval Office – they’re made at the University Council. Next week, you get to elect someone to that Council. Here’s why it matters.

What is the University Council?

University Council is where the leaders of the University, including Vice Chancellor Brian Schmidt himself, make huge decisions about University policy. They make decisions like exam, coursework and assessment policy, residential hall funding and management, campus redevelopments, admissions, and other key issues. The Council also chooses the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor when their terms end or they resign. The Council meets once a month to discuss all of these topics. Students and staff can attend certain parts, but the vast majority is private and confidential.

15 Councillors sit on the Council – the Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, four members of academic and professional staff, seven Councillors appointed by the Minister of Education, and one Postgraduate and one Undergraduate member.

Do the Student Representatives have any power?

Students are clearly in the minority on the Council. With two of the 15 positions, they can’t turn around and decide to implement a new policy, or change an ANU rule. But the inability to actually force any change shouldn’t distract from the fact that this is an awesomely powerful position and voice.

The most obvious power a student representative may have is in the deciding of a split vote. We have no way of knowing if, or how much, this actually happens – the vast majority of Council decisions are confidential, and all members are bound to confidentiality agreements.

But even technical voting aside, having a seat at the table is immensely valuable to the student body. In some circumstances, a clear, reasonable explanation to the most senior executives of the ANU can achieve more than dozens of protests, campaigns and petitions. Students often complain that decisions are made without consideration of the needs of students, or with a very poor idea of what students actually want. The student representative on Council ensures that at any time, there’s a student who can say, “Hey, that’s not actually what’s best for students.”

Fundamentally, the Council representatives are extremely important, because they are the two students on campus who can raise issues directly to the Vice-Chancellor on a monthly basis.


Why isn’t the Council Member the President?

Previously, the ANUSA and PARSA Presidents have served as Council Representatives. But that might be different next year: for the first time ever, the Council positions will be elected separately.

This change comes after an ANU report which said that having the Presidents automatically be Council members created a dangerous conflict of interest. Members of University Council have legal obligations to act in the best interests of the ANU; but the best interests of the ANU, unsurprisingly, are not always the best interests of ANUSA or PARSA. So, having the President be automatically on Council may create situations where they cannot act in the best interest of both organisations.

Presidents can still be elected to Council – they just have to get elected to both positions. This means they’re technically serving on Council and President independently, rather than on Council as a byproduct of being President, avoiding many legal complications.

Several Presidential candidates in both Associations are seeking the Council seat as well, and there’s a passionate debate occurring about whether it’s better for the President to also sit on Council, or for a non-Council student to take control.


Who wants the job?

Eleanor Kay and Cameron Allan, ANUSA Presidential Candidates, and PARSA’s Alyssa Shaw are running for Council, and have made strong cases for why the seat should belong to the President. They say the consolidation of information and work allows each job to be done better: the President can do more to advocate for students if they know what the University is doing, and the Council member can argue for student needs better if they spend all day helping students as President. They also argue that this gives the role of President far more respect in the eyes of the ANU. Independent candidate Shaun Fanaeian is also running for Council and ANUSA President simultaneously.

Advocates against the President being Council Member say the conflicts of interest could impede both positions from operating properly. There have been several situations in the past few years where Presidents have been unable to share information or plans about major issues, like the Union Court Redevelopment, with their fellow reps and the student body because they have been bound by confidentiality.

One alternative has been adopted by candidates in both ANUSA and PARSA: to have the General Secretary, the person who acts as referee of ANUSA’s meetings and policy, sit on the Council instead. ANUSA’s Howard Maclean and PARSA’s Chris Wilson are running on this combination, under the argument that having the Council member close to, but not actually being, the President is a better solution.


What this might mean

The Council election is highly unprecedented and the outcomes are extremely unclear. We could see one candidate get elected to both positions, or an independent Council candidate, or even one Presidential candidate winning President, and another winning Council.

For any questions, corrections, or updates, email [email protected]

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