PARSA Elections: Friend or foe in representing postgraduate students

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The Postgraduate and Research Students’ Association (PARSA) sent an email to all postgraduate students on Monday March 21st (see full email attached below), informing that its annual general meeting (AGM) has been pushed back to August from May in which it was usually held. A number of postgraduate students have begun discussing what this email means and it is only fitting to shed some light into this matter.

Understanding the background

PARSA’s elections are governed by both PARSA’s constitution and election regulations. The latter can be amended by the Postgraduate Representative Council (PRC) while to amend the constitution requires 75% of postgraduate students voting in favour at a general meeting.

Section 18 of the PARSA’s constitution states that the AGM has to be held within 5 months of the end of the financial year and Section 24 states that the financial year commences at January 1 of each year . In my understanding, without changing the constitution, election regulations cannot be changed to contravene the constitution.

PARSA’s motive to push back the “election schedule [is] to better align with the ANU’s requirement that Masters subjects run for two years”. Over 75% of the current 9,400+ postgraduate students are coursework students. Given the exemptions under the AQF (Australian Qualification Framework) and course requirements for international postgraduate coursework students (30% of all postgraduate students), the statistics for average enrolment length has not significantly changed to warrant PARSA’s claim of 2 years .

Previously, the PARSA President, Chris Wilson, did try to change the term of office by calling an ordinary general meeting (OGM) without the prior knowledge of the PRC (the abstract minutes do not reflect this, but talk to your PRC representatives) . However, this OGM was quickly cancelled citing “selected date falls outside of the academic calendar” . According to Section 17(2) “A general meeting shall only be held between ANU Orientation Week (usually mid-February) and the publication of examination results (usually late November)”, so an OGM could have been held on the previously stipulated date of September 8. This SGM was never rescheduled.

Section 16.3 of the constitution states that “Notwithstanding anything in this Section, the PRC may not make, repeal, or amend any regulations relating to the conduct of Association elections during the period beginning on the 9-month anniversary of the previous election of the PRC”. If the previous elections was held in May 2015, the 9-month anniversary would be February of this year. If that is the case, the PRC cannot change PARSA’s election regulations during the month of February (Section 2 of the election regulations too highlight the same fact) .

Despite the general meeting requirement, the current PRC ratified a motion on 15 February 2016 (we do not know when the decision was first taken for it to be ratified at this meeting) to push the elections back by 3 months to August. This also means that the current PRC have extended their term of office to 15 months.

Now knowing what has been done, it is important to understand the impact of this move on the postgraduate student cohort.

Why does it matter whether the PARSA term is June-May or January-December?

Let us look at the merits and demerits of the current PARSA term (June 1 to May 31) and the proposed term

• Merits of the current terms office which runs from June 1 to May 31
1. Permits a postgraduate student to serve a full term within the PRC (even if they are enrolled in a 2-year program).
2. Permits students who commence studies in February a few months to better understand PARSA, before running for office or students co-opted into PARSA after the summer can gain experience before running for re-election in May.
3. A two-year coursework student (75% of the 9400 postgraduate students at ANU) has the opportunity of reasonably serve for one and a half terms.
4. Allows the PRC to roll out better budget proposals during October SSAF negotiations with the other university stakeholders (PARSA did manage to increase its operational budget from around $350,000 to over $1 million within a span of 2 years) .
5. The PRC can devise a budget for the year ahead with a full 5 months of experience by this time and control the new budget for 5 months in the new calendar year.
6. At the time of being elected into office, there are SSAF funding available to carry out operations for the first 7 months of the term as the previous PRC has secured these funds from the ANU.
7. The incoming PRC will have a pipeline of projects so that PARSA can cater to the wider postgraduate community without a slowdown of activities.
8. The President and Treasurer who signs off on the accounts would have held office for 7 months and are thus accountable to the wider postgraduate student body.
9. The previous PRC will be on campus for any follow-up queries and knowledge transfers.

• The merits of moving to January 1 to December 31 term
1. PRC’s term in office is in line with the financial year.
2. PARSA’s term is in line with that of ANUSA’s.
3. Not as many representatives are expected to graduate mid-year than at the end of year but this is not guaranteed.

• The demerits of moving to January 1 to December 31 term
1. Loss of institutional knowledge:
a. PARSA not only advocates for postgraduate students. One of the notable benefits of ANUSA and PARSA having overlapping terms is that at key university meetings, such as the University Council Meeting, the organisational history is not lost. For example, when the PRC changes, ANUSA will compliment PARSA with institutional knowledge and vice versa when ANUSA’s executive changes office.
b. The previous PRC will graduate and leave ANU prior to the new committee taking office
2. The President and Treasurer will sign off on account (for the previous year) during which they did not have any control on how the finances were spent. The previous President and Treasurer may have graduated by the time of the AGM and even left the country. The best example is the current PARSA President signed off on the 2014 accounts at the Treasurer in 2015 without having served one day as Treasurer during 2014.
3. Postgraduate coursework students (over 75% of postgraduate student cohort) will have very little opportunity to run for PARSA office at they have to wait for one full year to be eligible to run.
4. Only students who undertake their degree part time or are in a degree longer than 2 years (PhD, JD and Medical Students representing just 25% of the postgraduate population) will be able to run for a second term in PARSA.
5. Any domestic student who is eligible for exceptions (up to one year of coursework) will never have the opportunity to run for PARSA’s office.
6. The proposed term will seriously alienate international coursework students from running for PARSA office as they would graduate and have to leave Australia before a full term is completed.

So what do students and representatives think of all this?

Given the unconstitutional changes, what was the support and opinion of students and representatives? Who knows?!

PARSA has not held any wider student consultation with regard to changing the term of office even though it affects all postgraduate students. Many students who had been preparing to run for PARSA in May were taken unawares by this announcement of elections being pushed back. In addition to a lack of consultation, from what has been informed, there has been a division within the PRC itself on this matter. However, given the extremely abstract nature of the minutes of the PRC (of the current PRC in office), there is no indication as to support for this change. Minutes reveal no proposer, no seconder, no information on the comments made by the PRC and no information on the number of PRC members who voted against the motion or who abstained from voting.

A non-existent Disputes Committee

The two largest issues are clearly that the PRC approved amendments to the election guidelines which are contrary to what is mentioned in the PARSA’s constitution and extended their own term by 3 months without student consultation but who can even resolve these issues?

Ideally any issues with regard to elections, or the conduct of the PRC should be first directed to the Disputes Committee which would have been established under Section 34 of the PARSA’s constitution. Sections 34(2) states that “No sooner than 3 months and no later than 6 months after the election of the PRC, the PRC must appoint a Disputes Committee”. 10 months into the current PRC term, the PRC is yet to appoint a Disputed Committee and give proper notice of such announcement to the wider postgraduate cohort.

Where to next?

In an event such as this, where the PRC changes election guidelines contrary to its constitution, with no proper student consultation and no Disputes Committee to direct grievances, what options do postgraduate students at ANU have?

Postgraduate students should hold their student leaders accountable for any action on their behalf without proper consultation.

• Few options that are available to the PRC are:
1. Nullify the decision to hold the AGM in August that was ratified at PRC’s February meeting and revert back to the original election guidelines
2. Conduct the AGM in May as the constitution stipulates
3. Set up the Disputes Committee as per the current constitution
4. Have a wider student consultation, especially with postgraduate students who have experience in student leadership
5. Conduct an independent investigation into how PARSA advocates on behalf of postgraduate students and how it governs itself
6. Rectify the problems that are existing in the current constitution that was identified even before it was passed in (there are quite a few and it has been communicated to the PARSA Executive)

PARSA’s email to all postgraduates