06 September 2014

WHY WE VALUE STUDENT UNIONISM (AND YOU SHOULD TOO)

This week, the University of Sydney Union passed an important milestone – our largest number of members since the introduction of Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU), we are now a community of 16,500 strong. We are a community who attend over 2,000 different events each year, join an average of 3.7 clubs per person and in 2013 saved a total of $471,918 through on-campus discounts alone.

Our ACCESS card casuals
It is difficult, though, as a student in 2014 to conceive of the University of Sydney community as it would have been just eight years ago, prior to the abolition of Compulsory Student Unionism (CSU). Back then, the Union had the financial means to provide 200 additional events per year, dedicated faculty common spaces, more regular publications, and more support to creative and cultural pursuits on campus. 

For many of you, the history lesson will be familiar – in 2006 the Howard Government introduced legislation to ban compulsory membership to student organisations around the country through VSU. At many Universities, student unions ceased operations or were absorbed by University administration – decreasing available services and reducing student control over the services which remained.

In many ways, the worst impacts of VSU on the University of Sydney Union were avoided through the introduction of the Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF) in October 2011. Under the new regime, universities were able to charge a fee to be allocated to a specified range of student services – many of you probably know it as the bizarre second FEE-HELP form you have to fill in, or the nagging reminders from the University to pay.
The SSAF allows the Union to foster student talents
The SSAF was not, nor has it ever been, intended as a total saviour for student organisations. Each year, the various student organisations on this campus must enter heated negotiations to apply the SSAF funds to the most expansive and most inclusive picture of the student experience conceivable. And that isn’t an easy feat.

In that context, then, calls from two Federal Liberal Party backbenchers this week for the abolition of the SSAF are worrying in light of the Union’s efforts to provide an increasingly more relevant and expansive student experience.

It is tempting to view this issue of student unionism as a squarely partisan debate – of fiscal conservatives waging an ideological war against profligate leftist student Unionists. Indeed, much of the political discourse regarding the SSAF reads like a student politics playbook of the 1970s and 1980s. One can’t help but get the feeling that the grown up student politicians draw some sick satisfaction from reliving the glory days of bitter rivalries on the University of Sydney front lawns. But their nostalgia couldn’t be further from the reality of the experience of students who are today the beneficiaries of the compulsory services fee. Indeed, our student community has a different meaning for the student who seeks out social networks and an inclusive community, for the student who looks to extra-curricular leadership experience as an indispensable necessity in their future career, or for the struggling student who turns to their campus community for welfare and support.

Re O-Day 2014 - an opportunity to join our Clubs & Societies Program
Opponents of compulsory student unionism will claim that those benefits are distinctly individual – and ought properly be subsidised by those to whom they accrue.  One of the Members of Parliament intending to introduce legislation this year to repeal the SSAF has contended that a justification for the Bill is to allow students to “choose the services they want.” The reality, of course, is no real choice at all. Presently, without the resources provided through the SSAF, we would be realistically unable to continue to provide services at their current level. And those decisions – about which clubs don’t get funding next year; which performances no longer get support; which commercial outlets are unviable – are not ones that we ever wish to make. That is the reality of VSU – far from individuals having the agency to define and participate in the student experience they desire, the costs associated with sustaining these critical programs will render them realistically unviable. Worryingly, too, support services for students who experience socio-economic disadvantage don’t fit into the crude market-based calculation of the student experience.

The services of the Union are not, and should never be, valued purely in economic terms. If you asked me to justify, in a strict financial sense, a USU outlet at the Conservatorium of Music, a society based on a sport created in a fantasy novel, a festival dedicated to student art and culture, or a grants system for students wishing to undertake humanitarian work that they are unable to personally finance – I’ll be honest, I would struggle. The Union often supports programs and services based on their contribution to a holistic student experience, not their financial return. And we wouldn’t have it any other way. There is plenty of time for penny-pinching when drab investment banking stalls at careers fairs become an everyday reality – but that certainly isn’t the ethos with which we approach supporting our student community.
The SSAF helps us provide campus spaces, used by many students
Beyond that, every student today has benefitted from the contributions of students prior – who have funded, worked within, refined and developed an infrastructure of student services which may today provide for a growing campus of 52,000 strong. Whatever agency students may have not to join clubs and societies, to never read a student publication, and to avoid all on-campus food and drink services – we cannot escape the contributions of previous students to developing an inclusive and expansive campus; to working with the University to improve student welfare, course and assessment policies and standards; and growing our campus community. Exercising ‘agency’ to avoid financially contributing to that culture is to reap rewards without giving back.

But the Board doesn’t intend to sit around complaining about it either.  We were vindicated this year when a reduction in the price of the ACCESS card increased memberships by more than 12% (a very pleasant surprise). Many of the current Board of Directors were elected on platforms of making the ACCESS card truly accessible to all – in a universal, free format. We remain committed to working towards that ideal. We value the support provided by our 16,500 strong membership to the continuation of this program. 


We look forward to growing it with you into the future,

TIM MATTHEWS
BOARD DIRECTOR



30 August 2014

IN DEFENCE OF RADICAL SEX AND CONSENT DAY


The 11th Speaker on Monday’s ‘Town Hall in the Great Hall’ discussion on fee regulation declared:

“Opponents [of deregulation]… have no problem with student money being used to hold a ‘radical sex week.’” http://honisoit.com/2014/08/live-blog-town-hall-meeting-at-the-great-hall/

Credit: Alexandra Mildenhall
While I dispute that opponents of fee deregulation have bizarrely united to support the USU’s Radical Sex and Consent Day, they (nay, all students!) undoubtedly should.

Radical Sex and Consent Day encourages the re-learning of the abysmal Sex Education taught in school. Unlike your year 10 Health Class, RSCD will acknowledge that sex is about more than ‘not having it,' STIs, and avoiding pregnancy. It aims to educate students on classroom silences like queer sex, kink and the female orgasm (spoiler alert: it exists).

But more than vulva puppets and blindfolded lube tasting, Radical Sex and Consent Day is about starting a conversation. A conversation that seeks to normalise students speaking about sex, personal boundaries, and seeking active consent. 

Credit: Liam Carrigan
People have commented to me in the past week that the proposition on the RSCD T-Shirts ‘you don’t owe sex to anyone’ isn’t very radical. However, even in our progressive campus bubble, unwanted sexual behavior is commonplace.

At the USU Board Election Soapbox this year a candidate was heckled about her appearance before she could even begin speaking about her policies. Non-consensual waist touching is commonplace when students speak to each other at Manning and Hermann’s. Earlier this week a tutor of mine asked my class if a lawyer could argue a wom*n consented to sex if she was ‘dressed like a prostitute.’ As if that was something that was ever okay to posit, even in the hypothetical.

Even more telling is that while wearing the RSCD shirt a member of the organising team was catcalled on King-Street: “You owe sex to me love!”

If Radical Sex and Consent Day isn’t worth student money then please tell me what is.

BEBE D'SOUZA
Vice-President / Director of Radical Sex and Consent Day

You can read about the full line up for Radical Sex and Consent Day here:

18 August 2014

WHY YOU SHOULD COME TO THE NATIONAL DAY OF ACTION


The decision to undergo tertiary education is not something one makes lightly, it is not a cheap endeavour by any means. The costs associated with studying at university begin to pile up when we purchase textbooks, readers and academic incidentals, but they do not stop there; these costs follow us well after we complete our degrees via our Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) debts. All of this is not ideal, it already tends to holdback hundreds, if not thousands of young people from attending university or having the same equal access to a fair education as their peers - the system is not perfect, but further changes will only make it catastrophic. 

Many of our parents, teachers, lecturers and academic idols were lucky enough to be educated just after the Whitlam Labor Government abolished university fees in 1974, under a scheme to prioritise tertiary education and open this amazing educative opportunity up to working and middle class Australians. This however, was a short-lived opportunity, afforded to individuals like Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and the Minster for Education Christopher Pyne who choose to attack our education today.  

Thousands filled Town Hall Square in July to protest the Budget
Providing free tertiary education to all is an ideal, an ideal I share and would love to witness the dawn of again, but the perceived impracticalities of it as a policy led the Hawke Labor Government to introduce the Higher Education Contributions Scheme (HECS), the system we pay for university fees under currently. Subsequent governments have sought to alter this system, the Howard Coalition Government introduced a three-tiered HECS fee system, which charged higher fees to certain degrees - based on the perceived value of the course. Following this there have been further attempts to take some of the financial responsibility for providing fair and equitable education away from the Federal Government. All of this will seem like nothing compared to what we face now. 

These changes, if carried through, will be the worst yet. Why? Because they are part of a string of damaging reforms to many things we take for granted in this country. The current Federal Liberal Government seems to believe that introducing uncapped university fees, striking funding from healthcare and drastically altering welfare payments (just to name a few of their "plans") are all good ideas. Why? Perhaps they believe that to save money and be fiscally responsible we should cut services and opportunities that promote welfare, equal opportunity and fairness in our nation.

To this I call bullshit! 

I, like many others, believe that education and access to welfare services are basic rights, and when such rights are facing extreme opposition, we have a duty to stand up and fight in their defence. Thankfully, I am not alone in this view. The University of Sydney Union Board of Directors is united against these changes, changes that will make being a university student even harder. 

My response to the Federal Liberal Government's budget
The road ahead looks grim for Australians. It is grim for unemployed graduates, who struggle to find work after completing their degrees and will find it increasingly difficult to secure welfare payments straight out of university. It will be grim for those with longstanding illnesses, who will now be expected to pay for each visit to their doctor under the guise of funding further medical research. And it will be especially grim for young people from low-socio economic backgrounds, especially if they wish to take on tertiary education after they finish high school. Basically, if you are poor, sick, or unemployed, you're fucked!

Sorry Abbott and Pyne, but you're both hypocrites!
BUT BACK TO EDUCATION - Moves to deregulate university fees will invariably lead to an education system much like that in the US, where universities can charge whatever they like for a degree, without considering the impact it will have on young people from low-socio economic backgrounds. Couple deregulation with changes to HECS so that we incur interest and we have an tertiary sector that will be dominated by those from wealthy families, with the occasional token poor kid being lucky enough to grab a spot. I came from such a background, and if faced with deregulated fees I would have been unable to justify enrolling into one, let alone two university degree programs. And the worst thing is, this is the case for many of my friends and a wide pool of currently enrolled students. This budget only seeks to benefit the rich, and bleed workers and the poor dry. I hope the hypocrisy of these changes being introduced by a government that is full of individuals who reaped the benefit of free tertiary education is not lost on you. 

This Wednesday 20th August, students across the country will be attending rallies, marches and debates as part of the National Day of Action (NDA) to display their sheer outrage against the Federal Liberal Government’s proposed budget, which contains the most significant attacks to welfare and education we have seen in this country. This budget, in my view, cannot be defended. I am angry, and you should be too! You can read up on the 2014 - 2015 budget here: http://www.budget.gov.au/2014-15/index.htm

THE NUS/SRC poster calling students to the NDA
Some might argue that it is not the place for the Union to take a stance on a federal issue, to them I say, you’re damn wrong. This is exactly what we should be doing. As a Student Board of Directors we have a responsibility not only to our membership, but also to the legacy of this university and our organisation.  We have a responsibility to ensure the welfare of our members and staff, both present and future. Many of us on the Board and employed by the Union would not be where we are if we were faced with a country that accepted these changes, this is why we are joining the fight. In the past, Boards have protested against Voluntary Student Unionism and even the Vietnam War, I believe it is time to bring back a fighting student Board. 

This view is not isolated to just the Board of Directors, it is held by staff and members throughout the organisation. This is why we have taken steps to assist the National Union of Students and the Sydney University Education Action Group in marketing the NDA in our outlets with flyers, posters and badges, and on our social media channels. 

We at the University of Sydney Union believe it is time for us to speak out on campus and assist the SRC, SUPRA and the wider student community in building a strong movement against this budget. This is why we urge everyone who reads this to get involved in the campaign against the budget and the various actions that are taking place on campus – particularly the NDA this Wednesday.
The Board says "BUST THE BUDGET"

You might read this and say "this does not impact me" or "I will be finished uni by the time fee deregulation happens" - that's fine to say, and it could very well be true. But think of the thousands of people who will be faced with fee hikes in the future. Take a stand not for yourself, but for future generations!

Check out the following event links for more information.

The University of Sydney feeder rally: https://www.facebook.com/events/1512027665680662/?ref=4



Look forward to seeing you at the NDA!

Robby Magyar
Honorary Treasurer

EMAIL: R.MAGYAR@USU.EDU.AU


UA-5126621-7