Its website says UniLife is the University of South Australia's (UniSA) “democratic organisation run by students”. But new changes to UniLife’s rules mean student members are no longer entitled to know what their representatives do.
This is the result of sweeping amendments to the UniLife constitution passed by student referendum on September 3. UniLife said the changes were designed to allow it to “operate in compliance with relevant Commonwealth legislation”.
During the referendum, several significant changes were withheld from promotional material, including:
• Restrictions to student access to board minutes, which are to be released only if the board itself permits it.
• Decisions related to “the number and nature” of clubs have been permanently delegated by the board to the general manager, an unelected UniLife employee.
• Under new clause 14.13, the board cannot pass any resolutions that would invalidate “any prior act of the General Manager or the Board”.
When Green Left Weekly asked UniLife acting president Daniel Nikoloski why the board had chosen to restrict minutes in its proposed amendments, he said: “Almost all of the issues considered by the board involve discussion about confidential information of both UniLife and third parties, which cannot and/or should not be disclosed outside of board meetings.
“Accordingly, it is important that the board has control over whether such information should or should not be released to its members.”
The new constitution still has provisions that allow students to observe meetings, but Nikoloski said this would be rare.
“It should be understood that UniLife is an incorporated association. It is not a public body like a local council where members of the public are entitled to observe the business conducted during a meeting.
“That being said, for ... reasons of confidentiality ... the board generally does not allow observers at its meetings.”
Nikoloski also explained why decisions of the board or general manager cannot be overturned: “The purpose of clause 14.13 is to prevent a situation where a relatively large club or special interest group could exercise significant power in general meeting due to the size of their membership base.”
When asked if clause 14.13 prohibited the board from overturning student club-related decisions made by the general manager, returning officer Jason Bilberry told GLW: “If the board was concerned regarding a decision the general manager made on clubs they could raise the question as to whether the decision was meeting [the objectives of UniLife]. The general manager ultimately works for the board.”
Bilberry oversaw the drafting of the new constitution.
However, Nikoloski said: “Regarding the exercise of power in relation to clubs under clause 11.3.1, the general manager only has the power to determine ‘the number and nature’ of club committees. It is not an overarching power with respect to clubs in general.”
Former UniLife Director Stephen McCallum led a campaign opposing the amendments. He told GLW: “Students are not able to make an informed decision during elections if they have no way of knowing who has advocated for what during their time on the board; if they have no access to UniLife board meetings or minutes.
“Most incorporated associations, including public schools make their minutes available to students.
“The UniLife board have been trying to pass off the exclusion of students from access to board meetings and minutes as a normal practice, but I challenge UniLife to find another reputable student organisation in Australia that withholds minutes and restricts access to meetings from members.
“Examples of any organisation claiming to be a representative organisation acting in this manner would be scarce.
Nikoloski defended the student vote, saying: “The referendum was a democratic process by which ordinary members could express their view on the new constitution.”
He also said: “Representatives, through almost a year’s worth of meetings, presented the view[s] of their constituents during the process of developing the new constitution.”
However, the student body was not consulted during the drafting process, and the proposed amendments were released only a week before the referendum.
When the proposals were made public, students were provided with summaries of the “Yes” and “No” cases online and on posters that omitted all of the proposed changes. The posters also changed during the voting period, with different text being added.
A more extensive list of changes was available on request from UniLife offices, but this document also failed to quote many of the exact clauses that have been changed, let alone explain the significance of these amendments.
Numerous layout issues that plague the new constitution make it difficult to navigate some parts of the document. The table of contents listed sections incorrectly on 13 of the constitution's 32 pages, and many clauses are not numbered. The addition of several grammatical and spelling errors is also a problem.
The referendum was passed with 78.18% of participants voting in favour of the amendments. Nikoloski said: “Those who cast a vote in the referendum overwhelmingly supported the adoption of the new constitution.”
However, documents obtained by GLW indicate that only 11.02% of UniLife's 20,745 registered members voted.
These voters accounted for only 6.2% of UniSA's 37,000 students, 16,255 of which are not members of UniLife, despite membership being free.
After the end of the voting period, the amended constitution replaced the previous edition online before UniLife released any official statement of results.
However, Bilberry told GLW that, “an announcement was posted on the UniSA Student portal and notices have been posted around campus”.
McCallum is sceptical that the new constitution represents the will of the student body. He said incentive voting may have created “a dangerous level of donkey voters”, which favoured the “Yes” vote, as this option was placed first.
Regarding board elections, he said: “The impact of the high donkey vote is usually reduced by randomising the order in which candidates appear on the online ballot [so that if] students vote for the candidate at the top of the ballot, it won’t have a significant effect on the result.
“During the referendum, the returning officer decided this clause did not apply to referenda and left ‘Yes’ at the top of the ballot.” Students who voted went in the draw to win an Apple iPad.
Despite being publicly endorsed by the UniLife board, 499 students voted against the amendments.