PLANS to deny students and staff their right to guaranteed places on university councils have sparked fears the state government is seizing control of universities by stealth.
Melbourne University chancellor Elizabeth Alexander has lashed out at the government about the changes in a letter to students and staff, which said she had told the government about her concerns to no avail.
''We are disappointed by the action of the government and its apparent unwillingness to respond to our objections,'' she said.
Under present rules university councils and TAFE boards must include elected student and staff representatives. But according to legislation passing through Parliament this week, these representatives could only be appointed by the council or board if they demonstrated the ''necessary'' skills.
If universities wanted to retain students and staff on councils, the government would then appoint an equal or greater number of its own representatives, a spokesman confirmed. Ms Alexander said the changes were an ''unjustified incursion''.
''We stressed that removal of these representatives was likely to disrupt the relationship of council to the university as a whole and inevitably cause resentment at staff and student levels, giving rise to tensions which do not currently exist.''
A government spokesman told The Age earlier that it was inappropriate for students and staff be represented ''as of right''.
Higher Education Minister Peter Hall said students and staff could sit on university councils, but had to show they had sufficient experience.
He said the government had acted on ''extensive consultations'' with tertiary institutions.
National Union of Students president Donherra Walmsley said the proposed rules infringed upon universities' autonomy to ''run as they see fit''. ''I think this is an attempt by the state government to overtake universities by stealth,'' she said. ''Why they would need to have such a hand in day-to-day running and direction of universities is unclear.''
Victorian universities are each governed by their own separate acts of State Parliament. The Age understands the changes would apply to all universities.
Jill Blackmore, the director of Deakin University's Centre for Research in Educational Futures and Innovation, said the government wanted more control over universities because they were so crucial to the state's economy. The government was treating universities like private businesses by sidelining students and staff, she said.