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Effective University Councils

Please contact us if you'd like more information about this program.

All Australian university councils share a broad set of structures and common objectives, but, due their differing compositions, constraints, cultures and the range of personalities involved, each tends to operate differently. Each council represents a unique framework of dynamic interpersonal relationships. In terms of statutory duties and functions, some of these releationships are more important than others. But all of them matter, all demand diligence and, ideally, all should contribute to the way in which each university is operated, guided and held to account. Furthermore, being an effective member of council requires a range of particular skills and knowledge.

This half-day program, one of four in our Governance suite of programs, is intended for people who are already appointed to, or who anticipate appointment to, a council. Please note: this program does not cover the structure and management of meetings and agendas. Rather, it provides an introduction to contemporary thinking on how councils operate.

Who should attend?

  • Ex-officio members of the council ( the Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, the Chair of the Academic Board)
  • Aspirant, new or near-new members of a university council (including external and internal members and new or near-new Chairs of Committees of a council)
  • Experienced council members wishing to refresh and develop their professional skills
  • University governance professionals (including University Secretaries, Secretaries to Council and Heads of Secretariats)
  • Senior executive staff
  • Senior academic staff who require or will require a knowledge of university governance as part of their current or future roles

Program content

Topics covered in this program will include:

  • The role played by interpersonal relationships in board decision making
  • The council hierarchy and members behaviours
  • Developing and applying effective personal skills

A set of notes addressing each of the topics is provided as pre-reading. In addition, an integrated set of mini-case studies and simulations is used on the day to allow participants to discuss how the concepts apply to their role in university governance. The program uses an experiential pedagogy involving an interactive discussion of key concepts, group work on case studies and simulations followed by class discussion of the practical exercise.

Program delivery

This program can be delivered as a tailored program for individual institutions or for a group of institutions based in the same city or state.

Learning outcomes

Upon completion, participants will be more effective council members by understanding

  • the nature and importance of behavioural dynamics inside and outside the council chamber,
  • that personal skills and competencies can directly improve the performance of a university council, and 
  • the framework of relationships present in a typical council.

Behavioural dynamics

How to:

  • perform ‘due diligence’ before accepting a council appointment and ensure that dissent is welcomed,
  • interact with fellow council members,
  • contribute constructively to council meetings,
  • challenge and give considered support to the Chancellor,
  • respect confidential information,
  • respect the division between executive and non-executive functions,
  • act in an independent, non-representative and objective manner – support a 'no surprises, no ambush' convention,
  • scrutinise the performance of the executive and hold it to account against the adopted strategy, KPIs and KFIs,
  • understand the need for regular and rigorous council evaluation,
  • understand the need to regularly refresh their portfolio of responsibilities to counter complacency and staleness,
  • be a team player but not a cypher,
  • respect the reputation and values of the university,
  • act as an ambassador for the university,
  • adhere to the principles of public service at all times,
  • discharge their individual responsibilities ethically
  • make sure that their individual views are heard and given appropriate consideration,
  • cooperate with and benefit from personal evaluations,
  • avoid being drawn into a faction or clique on the council, and
  • know when to pursue an issue and when to drop it.

Personal skills and competencies

How to:

  • appreciate the full scope of the personal liabilities and legal responsibilities associated with the post,
  • maintain a commitment greater than simply attending scheduled meetings,
  • avoid conflicts of interest,
  • adhere to the council’s Code of Conduct,
  • read and interpret complex council papers,
  • be adequately financially literate (especially if on the Audit Committee),
  • be well informed, aware of strategic issues and future trends – able to respond if a crisis breaks suddenly,
  • understand and apply the principles of risk management,
  • ask the ‘dumb question’ and request clarification if the initial answer is unsatisfactory,
  • know where and how to access further help and support,
  • help to promote a culture of transparency,
  • value being mentored and, in turn, be a mentor,
  • behave courteously and avoid dominating discussions,
  • avoid being overawed or ‘bullied’ by senior figures on the council,
  • handle an approach from the media appropriately,
  • recognise signs that the council is being manipulated, and
  • be a whistle-blower – a last resort or never?

The framework of relationships in a typical council

Between the individual council member and:

  • the Chancellor,
  • fellow council members,
  • the Chair of Academic Board,
  • the Sub-committee Chairmen,
  • the Vice-Chancellor,
  • other senior executives,
  • the Secretary,
  • key external stakeholders,
  • university staff,
  • the student community, and
  • the host community (however defined).

Enquiries and expressions of interest

Please direct enquiries about this program to martin-institute@unimelb.edu.au or call +61 3 83440756.

This program can be delivered as a bespoke program for groups of universities within the same city or state. Contact us to discuss delivery for your institution(s).

Other programs in the Governance suite

Understanding University Governance

Academic Governance in the New Regulatory Environment

Regulating the University: Impacts and Implications for University Governing Bodies

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Part of the Governance series
Part of the Governance series
A collaborative activity between the University of Melbourne through the LH Martin Institute and Effective Governance
A collaborative activity between the University of Melbourne through the LH Martin Institute and Effective Governance