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Let's talk about transparency

(Originally published in The Swanston Gazette print edition one 2019)


At an institution which prides itself on a world class journalism program, we should be especially concerned when the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology actively puts barriers in place to keep the truth in the shadows.


A journalist from a major media outlet, who has reported extensively on Australian universities and requested to remain anonymous, explained to The Swanston Gazette that RMIT should be ashamed of their record on transparency.



“I’VE FOUND RMIT TO BE AMONG THE MOST DIFFICULT AND UNHELPFUL UNIVERSITIES TO DEAL WITH,” THEY SAID.



“Like some other universities in Australia, they appear to forget they are public institutions that attract significant taxpayer funding,” the journalist said.


“They should be transparent and accountable.”


This might not be the RMIT that the public knows, but it’s a stubborn reality for those whose job it is to expose the truth and hold the powerful to account.


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Last year, RMIT journalism student and editor of The Swanston Gazette, Lisa Favazzo investigated the spate of evacuations which occurred during the first semester.


The frequency of unplanned and unexplained evacuations became an embarrassing episode for the thousands of students attending classes at the City campus.


What should have been a matter of urgent transparency, became a lacklustre effort to explain away the severity of a situation which was negatively affecting a plurality of students and staff.


Favazzo said “it was around two weeks” before RMIT got back to her after a request for comment.


RMIT’s head of security, Russel Lightfoot, ultimately replied “we do not comment on security matters”.


A carefully worded statement was also provided by RMIT’s Director of Property Services, Chris Hewison.


“With a dynamic and thriving student community predominantly based in the heart of the city, it is inevitable that there will sometimes be unplanned evacuations,” Mr Hewison said.


“While we know that these evacuations can sometimes be inconvenient, we stand behind our commitment to the ongoing safety of our community.”



NO REASON WHY – JUST THOUSANDS OF STUDENTS AND STAFF LEFT TO WONDER WHY THEY ARE STANDING ON SWANSTON STREET, AND NOT IN THE CLASSROOM.



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RMIT opens its doors to thousands of international students every year.


Approximately 45 percent of RMIT’s student body are international students, accounting for close to half a billion dollars in revenue for the university’s $1.4 billion total revenue.


This means RMIT commands a profound international influence, outwardly and inwardly.


Part of RMIT’s global footprint involves the City campus’ Confucius Institute.


Chinese Confucius Institutes are funded by the Chinese government in an effort to spread cultural and linguistic teachings across the world.


There are 13 of these institutes in Australia, including one at RMIT which purports to teach Chinese Medicine although its webpage acknowledges the institute “aims to promote cultural exchange; especially Chinese language, and to broaden opportunities for students and academics to engage with Chinese universities”.


In July, The Age newspaper revealed contracts signed by Australian universities which force signatories to “comply with Beijing's decision-making authority over teaching at the facilities”.


The University of Queensland, Griffith University, La Trobe University and Charles Darwin University all signed agreements which requires the programs to “accept the assessment of the [Confucius Institute] Headquarters on the teaching quality”.


As tensions rise between the West and China, spurred by the ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, it would be incumbent on all institutions signing these contracts to be as transparent as possible.


After all, Confucius Institutes play a vital role in the Chinese government’s international soft power mechanism.



MOST INSTITUTIONS DID CHOOSE TO BE TRANSPARENT BY REVEALING THE CONTRACTS TO THE MEDIA ORGANISATION THAT REQUESTED THE INFORMATION – ALL EXCEPT TWO.

THE UNIVERSITY OF ADELAIDE AND RMIT.



According to The Age, “a spokeswoman for RMIT said the university considers agreements with third parties to be confidential”.


Written agreements considered an important matter for the public record on 11 counts, two abstain – UA and RMIT.


Public accountability shunned in the name of ‘confidentiality’.


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On Friday 2 August, RMIT’s Student Union (RUSU) and the RMIT Student Life team hosted the ‘Have Your Say Summit’ in the Kadelaide Theatre at the university’s City Campus.


“If you're interested in having your voice heard as a member of the RMIT community, this is the event for you,” RUSU told its members.


Students would be treated to a ‘Q & A Panel’ where they could “ask questions and share ideas directly with senior RMIT Staff and Student Leaders,” following a “fireside chat with RUSU President Ella Gvildys and RMIT Vice Chancellor Martin Bean.”


What would ultimately occur at RMIT’s Have your Say day was aptly described by one attendee as “farcical”.


Journalists from The Swanston Gazette attended, hoping to immerse themselves in an open discussion forum – as it was sold.


Our editor, Cai Holroyd, was one of them.


The question and answer, which forced attendees to submit queries through an online moderation platform, was “watered down to the point of it being rendered useless”, he said.



“QUESTIONS WERE SUBMITTED ONLINE SO THEY CAN CHOOSE WHICH QUESTIONS TO ANSWER - AND AVOID ANY DIFFICULT ONES,” HOLROYD SAID. “IMPORTANT QUESTIONS LIKE ‘WHY IS THE LGBTQI+ OFFICER NOT VOTED IN EXCLUSIVELY BY LGBTQI+ STUDENTS?’ COULD BE BRUSHED OVER FOR EASY JOKES WITH SIMPLE ANSWERS LIKE ‘WHY ARE THERE NO ICE CREAM VENDING MACHINES ON CAMPUS?’”



“A platform for students to voice concerns or problems they have with the uni is a great idea, but you have to trust the students enough to listen to them openly,” Holroyd said.


Holding yourself to account requires more than answering a moderated question without opportunity to follow up – if only the organisers had read their own promotional material for the event, attendees may have left more satisfied.


The Swanston Gazette contacted RUSU President, Ella Gvildys, for comment.


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The caveat, to each of these humiliating sequences, is the ostensibly ludicrous nature of RMIT’s Freedom of Information protocol.


As a public institution, RMIT is subject to Victoria’s Freedom of Information Act.


“The Freedom of Information Act 1982 (FOI Act) gives an applicant the right to request documents held by RMIT University,” according to RMIT’s governance site.


“Anyone can make a Freedom of Information request, regardless of their connection (or lack of it) to RMIT,” the statement continues.


Without any logical justification, RMIT requires the application fee for an FOI request to be paid by cheque or Money order.



ONE JOURNALIST SAID “NOT HAVING AN ELECTRONIC PAYMENT OPTION IS RIDICULOUS AND A CLEAR BARRIER”.



“Why should people have to get their hands on a cheque or money order these days?,” they said.


The Swanston Gazette can confirm that The University of Melbourne, Monash University, Victoria University and Deakin University all accept FOI request fees in the form of online payment of credit card.


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The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology is a world-renowned, highly successful learning and research organisation that caters for well over 50,000 student enrolments every year.


RMIT boasts some of the most advanced facilities and modern classrooms of any university in Australia.


But, as with every vast and powerful organisation, RMIT needs to be held accountable both externally and internally.


The same organisation which empowers young journalists to chase their dreams, should not be the organisation that turns its back on those it nurtured.


The time has surely come to open up and shine a light on their insecurities.

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