BREAKING: SUPRA Asks to be investigated by the University

Words by sandra buol

Mariam Mohammed and Kiriti Mortha, the current Co-Presidents of SUPRA, have decided on a radical course: they are asking the University for an investigation in SUPRA’s governance structure.  In the last few days, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education) and the SUPRA Co-Presidents have been charting a way forward to put such an investigation in place. “The University needs approval from various different levels”, Mohammed explains the process. The final ruling lies with the Senate – which meets again on May 16, when a decision can be expected.
Should the Senate agree to an investigation – and both Co-Presidents are convinced this is going to happen –, either an internal auditor of the University or a qualified external expert will carry out the necessary inquiries. Once completed, the investigator will report their findings and recommendations to the Vice-Chancellor, who in turn will take actions to see those recommendations implemented. SUPRA also has endorsement of CAPA (Council of Postgraduate Associations Australia), NATSIPA (National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Postgraduate Association) and CISA (Council of International Students Australia) to take the actions they deem necessary.
What prompted Mohammed and Mortha to take such a drastic step for the organisation they both preside over? For the past few years, SUPRA has been dealing with the same recurring issues that have their roots in the governance structure of the organisation. “SUPRA has outgrown this structure”, says Mortha, “it hasn’t changed in the past decade and there are a lot of gaps and holes within our constitution that now have become problematic.” Ten years ago, SUPRA was relatively small, but it has since grown substantially. While it used to have only a handful of staff, the organisation now employs 7 full-time and 4 part-time employees people. It also gets 11% of all SSAF fees, which adds up to about $1.6 Million.
The governance structure of SUPRA as it is means that the President/s not only lead the organisation, but also serve as CEO and General Manager (compare this to the USU for example, which has a student-elected President, but the everyday operations are in the hands of a CEO). As a consequence, operational and HR issues are managed by people who very often do not have the necessary experience to do so. In the past, this resulted in financial and electoral misconducts (for which the organisation was held accountable). Only last year, it also led to the signing of an Enterprise Agreement without any consultation from a professional industrial lawyer – an Agreement that that doesn’t leave much space for SUPRA to take action against staff should it be considered necessary as most decisions can be appealed and therefore potentially stall SUPRA’s operation for weeks or months. One example of this: vacant positions within the organisation have to be advertised internally first. “Where a staff member is unsuccessful with respect to appointment to an internally advertised position, they shall have a right of appeal using the dispute resolution procedures,” the Agreement states. Appeals can be taken to the Fair Work Commission should they not be resolved before – and until a decision is made, the position cannot be filled. “The Agreement has been drafted entirely by the National Tertiary Education Union – this is documented by Fair Work Australia – and it has been signed by the then, now former, Co-President without any legal advice and without any amendments from SUPRA’s side,” says Mohammed.
“Since we’ve been in office – so in the last 9 months – we’ve had 3 serious grievance cases concerning the SUPRA staff which forced us to seek legal advice although the outcome was obvious even for someone without legal training,” explains Mortha. In 2017, SUPRA spent $44’000 on legal expenses. “This year it’s already $19’000 – and we’re not even halfway through the year yet,” adds Mohammed. Both agree that this is money that would be better spent for postgraduate student issues. On top of that, the presidents currently spend the majority of their working hours dealing with HR issues – instead of using that time to fulfil the role they were elected to represent. “There is a toxic culture dominating the everyday business in our offices,” both Mohammed and Kiriti say, “the office is not considered a safe space by many of our councillors – especially by councillors of colour.”
The Enterprise Agreement is in place until May 2020 and is not up for dispute. “Obviously, we will honour it,” says Mohammed. What the Co-Presidents want instead, is to make sure that mistakes won’t be repeated. “We want a governance review, an in-depth report about where the gaps and holes in our constitution are and how they can be fixed. And then we want a fresh start”, emphasises Mortha – well-knowing that he and Mohammed will be out of office by the time the changes come into effect.
The issues were put on the agenda of the SUPRA council meeting a week ago as part of the Presidents’ report and the report from staff members. Both issues were discussed in-camera, thus remain confidential. However, the actions taken by the presidents don’t require a vote on the council. The SUPRA constitution states the Vice-Chancellor can recommend such actions if they become aware of certain “irregularities” and believe they “may be of serious nature”.

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