Sydney University's archaic college laws given major overhaul

Planning mInister Rob Stokes speaks to the press after a conference on the simplification of urban planning at the Sofitel Wentworth in Sydney on November 25th, 2016. Photo: Brook Mitchell
Planning mInister Rob Stokes speaks to the press after a conference on the simplification of urban planning at the Sofitel Wentworth in Sydney on November 25th, 2016. Photo: Brook Mitchell

Education Minister Rob Stokes has introduced an overhaul of the 160-year-old laws that govern the University of Sydney's St John's College.

The college began pushing for the changes after a female student who was pressured to drink a toxic cocktail of shampoo, alcohol, dog food, sour milk and Tabasco sauce was hospitalised in 2012.

Mr Stokes introduced legislation to Parliament on Wednesday that will repeal the St John's College Act 1857, under which the college was established and continues to operate outside the control of the government and Sydney University.

The act is similar to those governing a number of the other Sydney University residential colleges, including St Paul's, which faced strong criticism earlier this year for its response to a student's sexist Facebook post and has previously come under fire after its students established a "pro rape" Facebook page.

However, St John's appears to be the only college that has sought formal legislative changes and no other colleges will be affected by the bill that is currently before Parliament.

The new bill will re-establish St John's College, allow female clerical members on the council for the first time and enable the university to appoint a member of the college council, which is currently elected by former college residents and council members, prompting concerns that "old boys" are preventing cultural change.

It will also reduce the number of council members from 19 to 13, of which only four will be elected, with the remainder being appointed by the university's vice-chancellor, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Sydney or the council.

"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," Mr Stokes said.

"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."

The college has been seeking changes to its governance for a number of years but has faced opposition from its own alumni.

"It has been important that all stakeholders are supportive of the changes," a spokesman for Mr Stokes said.

"This bill is a bill to amend a private Act. The Minister's role is therefore to act as an agent of the College and only enact reform after a lengthy period of consultation and reflection."

A spokeswoman for Sydney University said the university is "delighted that the NSW Government has acted on this request to improve and modernise the governance at St John's College".

The St John's legislation is not expected to be debated until early next year when Parliament resumes.

The move to overhaul St John's governance comes ahead of the conclusion of former sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick's review into the culture and behaviour at Sydney University's residential colleges, which is expected to release its results to the colleges before the end of the year.

Mr Stokes said earlier this year that he was seeking legal advice on repealing or changing similar Acts of Parliament which give a number of Sydney University residential colleges significant autonomy after the latest St Paul's scandal.

This story Sydney University's archaic college laws given major overhaul first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.