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Friday, May 04, 2007

University practices regarding VC employment contracts

The Sydney Morning Herald attempt to use the Freedom of Information Act to access the employment contracts of vice chancellors' employment contracts from the 10 NSW universities, has produced interesting comparative information. Information that may even be useful to academics (among others) at universities who teach the subject.

The FOI Editor Matthew Moore in his "What they won't tell you" column yesterday, summarised the responses to the same request which range from full disclosure by three universities, to complete or partial knockbacks from the others.

In the online version "Academe rewards are kept behind the screen" the contracts released by Macquarie, Newcastle and UTS and the partial disclosure by Wollongong are published, together with the letters of refusal from Sydney, Charles Sturt, UNE, Southern Cross, NSW and Western Sydney.

Most of the justifications for refusal of access are on personal affairs grounds or confidentiality. Several rely on an Administrative Decisions Tribunal decision which we suggested at the time had significant defects.

It's certainly possible that an employment contract may contain some sensitive personal information, or commercial information, for example about university strategic plans that aren't in the public domain. However the idea that the university and the vice chancellor can simply get together to agree on a confidentiality agreement that covers all aspects of the employment relationship is a bit rich. I know there might also be differences between a contract of employment and a standard AWA for academic and general staff, but the AWAs on offer certainly don't contain a confidentiality clause. In what appears to be a model used in most universities, the template agreement (see proposed AWA Clause 4) says that parties are not restricted from disclosing information to others.

The NSW Ombudsman has made it very clear in a number of published reports that employment contracts for senior public servants (excluding any personal affairs information) should be in the public domain.

While the expectation is that public sector bodies should conform with high standards of transparency, the refusal to disclose information about vice chancellor employment by some universities stands in stark contrast to private sector standards for companies listed on the Australian Stock Exchange.

The 10 principles that are the basis for the Stock Exchange Corporate Governance Guidelines include one concerning remuneration which requires disclosure of the material terms of the employment contract of the CEO. The requirement is to disclose "the components of the remuneration contract which are aimed at influencing CEO behaviour that would be relevant to the market at the time of appointment". As an example, here (
Terms of contract for new MD and CEO) is the disclosure relating to the contract of employment of the Managing Director of the Stock Exchange, itself a publicly listed company, disclosed on the ASX website on the appointment of Mr. Elstone on 14 July 2006.

We appear to have a major disconnect between emerging private sector governance, and disclosure practices in some public institutions. Perhaps some vice chancellors (if they were the ones who insisted on confidentiality) will need to do some re thinking if they plan to move on to the corporate world in due course.

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