Legal changes to university residential colleges: How they relate to schools

On 22 November the NSW Government introduced proposed statutory changes in the form of the Saint John’s College Bill 2017 (NSW) (the Bill).  The Bill seeks to replace the Saint John’s College Act 1857 (NSW) which established a Roman Catholic residential college of the same name at the University of Sydney. Although the Bill relates to a university residential college there are similarities between the legislation governing the College and the types of legislation under which some non-government schools are governed around Australia. For this reason, schools should be aware of the changes proposed by Parliament, especially the changes designed to change the culture of an institution.

What is covered in the new NSW Bill?

The NSW Education Minister, Rob Stokes, introduced the Bill in response to a crisis in governance occurring in 2012, in which a group of older college students coerced a female first year into drinking a toxic cocktail of alcohol and household goods that almost killed her, in a college hazing incident. After that incident, 33 students at the college were suspended by the rector but seven of those students were subsequently voted onto the college council. Clergy were then directed to resign by the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, George Pell, and this created a need for new legislation which governed the constitution of the college board.

The Bill has been a result of extensive negotiation since 2013, and, despite applying to a residential college associated with the University of Sydney, covers some topics familiar to most non-government school boards.  They include:

  • establishment of the constitution of the college
  • role of the Council/Board
  • members appointed to the Council/Board including set numbers for:
    • laypersons
    • members appointed by the religious head, and
    • members appointed by the head of the college (in this case, the Rector)
  • procedures for removing College office holders
  • members and procedures of Council/Board
  • disclosure of material interests or conflict of interests
  • procedure for conducting Council/Board business.

The changes canvassed in the Bill are proposed to encourage a change in college culture.  It plans to do this by re-establishing St John’s College, allowing female clerical members on the council for the first time and enabling the university to appoint a member of the college council, which is currently elected by former college residents and council members, prompting concerns that alumni are preventing cultural change. St Andrew’s College updated its own statute in 1998 to include similar new provisions and St Paul’s College has been the subject of debate to update its outdated statute as well.

But why is this important to non-government schools?

There are many  colleges and non-government institutions across Australia governed by statute. And there are common elements across all the establishment and incorporation Acts including requirements relating to:

  • the establishment of the constitution of the College
  • procedures for removing College office holders
  • role of the Council/Board.

These common requirements have been supplemented by the Bill.  Under the Bill, if passed, additional obligations applicable to the College would require compliance including:

  • documented directions for the appointment of members of the College council who are laypersons, appointed by the religious head and also appointed by the head of the college
  • documented procedures for management of the College Council meetings and decisions
  • disclosure of material interests and conflict of interests
  • documented procedures for conducting College Council business.

The Bill is expected to be debated in NSW Parliament in February 2018.

According to NSW Education Minister Rob Stokes: ‘The bill will significantly modernise the governance arrangements for the St John’s residential college, creating greater accountability and a stronger relationship with the University.’ ‘It is to be hoped that these more contemporary governance arrangements and more diverse Council membership will help contribute to a positive and inclusive culture.’

Despite its current limited application to a NSW residential university college, it could easily translate to non-government schools governed by statute.  This means that such schools should be aware of the proposed changes in the Bill, which create an increased governance responsibility to ensure a positive and inclusive culture through legislative compliance.

Takeaways for non-government school boards

Rather than relying on governance by statute, non government school boards should champion the establishment of a positive and inclusive school culture with the role of the Board as one of the key components to drive cultural change across the school. As we stated in our previous article, school Boards should look to the Good Governance Principles for Not-For-Profit Organisations including focusing on:

  1. Roles and responsibilities
  2. Board composition
  3. Purpose and strategy
  4. Recognition and management of risk
  5. Organisational performance
  6. Board effectiveness
  7. Integrity and accountability
  8. Organisation building
  9. Culture and ethics
  10. Engagement

In the case of St John’s College, the council had ‘lost the confidence of Cardinal George Pell’ due to inadequate governance arrangements and daily decisions. A highly effective way to ensure engagement and create culture shift is through the use of a centralised Staff Learning System (SLS) which is designed specifically to engage staff and the school community in understanding how policies apply to their daily actions and decisions. Staff Learning Systems are designed to bring policy to culture by delivering “sticky” learning which creates behavioural change and accountability through role-based learning and reporting. SLSs are not the same as student learning management systems in that SLSs are designed to engage the wide spectrum of participants across the school community including teaching staff, non-teaching staff, casuals, volunteers, parents, Board members and sport staff.  Using a SLS can drive positive school culture without the need to rely on legislative intervention.

If you are interested in learning more about our new Staff Learning System watch this webinar or contact us.

Lauren Osbich is a Legal Research Consultant and School Governance reporter. She can be contacted here.

Leave a comment