There is a long and varied history of what constitutes a university. If we confine our notion of a university to an institution with the ability to grant degrees then the oldest institutions satisfying our current notions were either European or Near Eastern. On this basis most scholars now credit the University of Bologna (est. 1088) as the first University although there is some rivalry with the University of Paris. The latter institution was organized by faculty who then solicited students while the University of Bologna was a university organized by students who then sought tutors. However, if we broaden our definition to an institution of higher learning with fewer but still some of the characteristics we now associate with a university such as research and teaching, self-administration, and academic independence then the University of Constantinople (est. 425) is probably the first such institution. The transformation of universities that eventually resulted in the modern research university began at the end of the mediaeval period. Thus, whatever our concept universities do have a long tradition. Moreover, they are clearly enduring institutions that have undergone substantial change in response to both internal and external processes. Indeed, one might profitably argue that their endurance has been a result of the process of renewal.

With the decline in Church and/or State support, modern universities have assumed a duality that was not seen in earlier times. Thus, universities retain their position as collegial academic institutions having a high level of autonomy. On the other hand, there is a judicial concept of a university as a trading corporation covered by relevant legislation with a high level of external accountabilities. There can be no doubt that a modern university is a business enterprise in which academic standards and/or values provide the basis for business success. However, efficient management of the business ensures supply of resources that underpin the ability to maintain high academic standards. There is and should be a creative tension between the various notions of a university as an institution that pursues and communicates knowledge, that equips people for a productive contribution to society, and that creates a liberal culture for the welfare of mankind.

The Current State of Play: External Environment

The University sector has been extremely volatile over the past five years, and this volatility is set to continue into the future. The two major political parties have very different views of higher education, so a change of government can significantly alter policy. In 2008, the Labor government sponsored a Review of Australian Higher Education (sometimes called 'The Bradley Report' after its chair, Professor Denise Bradley) which proposed a major broadening of access to higher education (so that less advantaged Australians could go to University more easily), a big increase in student numbers and a hotting-up of the competition for students between neighbouring universities. It also introduced a host of new regulatory processes focused on 'quality assurance,' through a new body, the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency (TEQSA).

The current volatility is not just an Australian phenomenon, however. It is world-wide. CSU is liable to be more affected than most universities by the 'globalization' of higher education and the resultant intensification of competition for students, staff and grants – particularly in the fast-expanding online market. CSU is, of course, well-positioned to benefit from the online revolution. But we will have to move decisively, intelligently and fast if we are to benefit.

Why? Because the life-histories of top-ranked universities today show how central a vibrant academic community is for an institution's success (e.g. Warwick University in the UK). It should be no surprise - given that academic activity is at the core of the success of a University - that, given the chance through an effective Senate. Harnessing the energy and creativitey of academic staff has a profound influence on the character and strategic steps taken by a tertiary institution!

All this means CSU's Senate has a crucial role in discovering, debating and catalysing the changes most necessary for the future well-being of CSU's academic community - our staff, our stakeholders and our students. In order to strengthen its future effectiveness, we are currently in the midst of the University's first-ever external review or 'audit' of Academic Senate (the review is due to be finalised in March, 2014). Everything is on the table, from the composition of the membership of Academic Senate to its size, its functions, its committee-structure and the ways it meets. We are also giving critical attention to the widely-held assumption (e.g. by TEQSA) that Academic Senate is the body responsible for assuring CSU's academic operations are all of good quality. Should Senate's approach to quality assurance be dominated by a drive directly to ensure compliance with the standards TEQSA uses to measure our performance? Or should we find a way of designing our academic work so that quality is self-evidently built into it? In which case: the whole University is responsible for quality.

Self-Reviews: Internal Environment

CSU's Senate is not just a pawn of history. Insofar as it is effective, Senate helps make the history of CSU. In this vein, one achievement of CSU's Academic Senate was 'the CSU Degree Initiative' (2008-2011) – which instigated a new whole-of-university approach to the renewal of our curriculum. This has now morphed into the Smart Learning project.

Marx said that people "make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past." So what 'circumstances' have CSU's Academic Senate inherited from the past?

Of course, superficially speaking, CSU's Senate is only as old as CSU. In that it exercises collegial governance of the University, however, the history of Senate goes back much further than this – to the first University that was a self-governing academic community many centuries ago. After 1989, Universities around the globe became increasingly entrepreneurial and 'corporatized.' This meant that their direction and governance was more and more shaped by executive management rather than collegial processes. However, the advent of AUQA (the Australian Universities Quality Agency – the precursor of TEQSA) in 2002 constituted a corrective to the rise of corporate culture in Australian Universities.

AUQA conducted two audits of CSU, both of which focused strongly on Senate. The 2004 Audit reported that, while CSU's Academic Senate played an effective "technical role" in arbitrating on regulations, it had a "mechanistic nature." This meant it was "not taking an active role in fostering discussion of, and leading the University's response to high level matters of current and emerging academic policy." In response to the criticisms in AUQA's first Audit, CSU's Academic Senate conducted a comprehensive internal Self Review (2008) and instituted a variety of changes in its processes.

AUQA's 2010 report on CSU affirmed the findings of Senate's Self Review but recommended that CSU ensure that "Academic Senate is better able to actively monitor the quality of academic processes and outcomes across the whole University." A key thrust of the 2010 report was that CSU's Academic Senate had delegated the implementation and interpretation of its policies to Faculties but had no reliable way of checking that these policies were being carried out. In 2010, CSU convened a Working Party on Academic Processes and Outcomes to respond to AUQA's recommendations about Senate. Amongst the recommendations Academic Senate adopted from this Working Party was the institution of an Annual Course Performance Report. The current external review of Senate is going beyond this by proposing that Academic Senate should be able to review the academic operations of Schools when required, to see how Senate policies are faring 'on the ground,' where they are implemented.