18 November 2011

USU Board November Update

Thank you everyone for joining in on the discussions regarding the USU-University Negotiations. It’s been excellent to see so many people taking the time to make their voices heard, especially during the exam season. There have been a number of comments requesting further explanation so I would like to pick up from where we left off in the last blog and answer some contested issues. If you have any more questions or thoughts, please post a comment below.

First, allow me to clarify the misconception surrounding the new Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF). Many are calling this a return of compulsory union fees, which is untrue as no-one will be obliged to join the Union, SRC, SUPRA, Campus Rewards or SUSF. Every cent of the $263 paid by each student goes to the University’s administration to distribute as they see fit, as long as it falls within the legislative guidelines (click here for more details). The decision about where the money will be spent is made in consultation with student organisations – that is, representatives of the student organisations sit on a Consultative Committee led by Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education) Professor Derrick Armstrong. The second meeting of this committee will be held next Monday. There is no onus on the University to provide the USU with any of the funding, but we feel very strongly about providing more services for students, particularly those currently marginalised in student experience programs, such as students at the affiliated sites.

Much discussion has focused on the USU’s financial health since VSU and what happens on our balance sheets. The VSU’s impact on the USU in 2006 - the loss of $8.4 million dollars annually and a completely new business environment, was a challenge we overcame. The USU’s strength and ability to survive and evolve is why we exist today as the largest and most extensive student union in the country; an incredible feat that is largely thanks to the support of our student members. Numerous initiatives and business plans were enacted that meant the USU not only stayed afloat, but over time reduced deficits and increased cash flows. The last few years have seen a hostile global financial landscape that made most organisations around Australia feel the pinch – including the USU and University itself. Agreements with the University have aided us specifically for the occupation and upkeep of our buildings – buildings built with Union funds over the last 100 years. Without such Agreements, the USU would still exist – but the student experience program we deliver would have been at the mercy of the accountant’s chopping block. The USU would have simply been a diluted example of what it used to be and we wanted to guarantee this did not happen.

The USU’s commercial operations have been financially improving each year and in 2010 the USU made an $83,616 operating profit, the first operating surplus since VSU. The profits generated from our commercial operations, which exceeded $4 million were duly invested directly back into the student programs. A focused strategy to improve USU outlets has been a long-running project that is beginning to pay dividends; and more steps and continual improvements are planned by the USU. Last year’s surplus is proof that with a commitment to improved service delivery, the USU’s commercial services will continue to be an important source of independent revenue in the future. We strongly believe that we are able to deliver these services from a financially-sound business platform, and importantly, in a way that truly reflects the wants and needs of the campus community.

The SSAF Bill is another game-changer for the USU and the University. Given that the University is the gatekeeper to these student-paid funds, future plans are dependant on their decisions regarding distribution. The USU believes that the best way to give students value for the payment or the SSAF is through the universal provision of the Access Benefits Program - our membership program that was established in the wake of VSU to recoup lost membership revenue. Access delivers tangible benefits through discounts both on and off campus, free membership packs at O-Week, exclusive deals, leadership opportunities, access to Clubs and Societies and much more. Its founding premise is our belief that students deserve value for money, which is why we hope that the Access Benefits Program can be delivered to each and every student to tangibly demonstrate value for students’ fees (SSAF). This is, of course, dependent on the University’s distribution of SSAF funds, and we will discuss this possibility with the University in the very near future.

Retail Strategy
The USU was not satisfied with the Retail Plan delivered by the University’s Campus Infrastructure Services, as it did not address specific student needs. Considerations such as affordability and opening hours, or student choice in regards to outlets and catering options were not addressed. Throughout the negotiations, the University have repeatedly assured us that we would be able to deliver our own Retail Strategy in response to the University’s plan, as a vision for how we would improve food and beverage facilities on campus. The detailed Retail Strategy is currently being developed, and while I cannot reveal specifics as yet, rest assured that at every corner of this plan the whole campus community is at the forefront of our mind. We seek to reach out to the campus community to gauge wants and needs so we can deliver them. You inhabit the campus and your money is invested into it, therefore we believe your opinion is what really matters, not the interests of external commercial entities.

The USU has operated the University of Sydney Venue Collection (USVC) successfully for the last four years. The business model uses joint assets of the USU and University to benefit the entire community. As the USU had a pre-existing functions business (called The Venue Collection) and the University had a vast array of desirable venues, by combining the two we provided a one-stop shop for corporate, wedding and University clients to have all their event management needs met, including catering. This business became highly valuable for the USU, providing over $900,000 in operating contribution back into student services. The University gave us 12 months termination notice last December, and it is disappointing that the University is adamant on breaking up such a successful business unit by the end of 2011. We are also concerned with the University’s suggested proposal for the operation of the venues on campus, as it is not a sustainable alternative to that offered by the USU, which has a proven track record.

The USU Board will continue to negotiate with the University in seeking to arrive at a mutually beneficial outcome. Over the last nine months of negotiations, we have agreed on a number of core principles. We have strong agreement on the importance of student life being student-run; acknowledgment that the food and beverage services need to be improved for the benefit of our students; and a keen desire to reach a shared vision for service delivery in the future. We believe that there are more conciliatory, cost-effective and inclusive ways to improve the food and beverage services on campus than the University’s proposed takeover, and we will work hard to negotiate with the University in exploring those alternative solutions.

However, with the Deputy Vice-Chancellor’s November 2 email, the University signalled an unwillingness to confine the discussions regarding the future of the USU’s commercial operations to the negotiation room. We don’t think this communication should be a one-way street - we’d like you to share your thoughts with the University administration, and more importantly, the University of Sydney Senate. The Senate is the University’s governing authority, and is the body responsible for keeping this University a world-class institution; a leader in education, academic research and achievement; and a leader in student experience and life within the campus community.

The Senate decisions are largely informed by the advice of the University administration, and student voice is not often recognised with the exception of the two student Senate Fellows. If you feel strongly about the situation facing the USU, please inform the current (and recently re-elected) student Senate Fellow, Ben Veness as well as the Chair of the Senate, The Chancellor, Her Excellency Professor Marie Bashir AC CVO.

Below is an example template you may wish to use, or feel free to write your own message.
By emailing them and asking them to bring your concerns to the next Senate Meeting on your behalf (the next meeting is being held on 5 December), you can ensure your student voice is heard.

As always, thank you for your support and patience throughout these negotiations, and please don’t hesitate to post your comments and questions below.

Yours sincerely,
Sibella Matthews

Email contact details:

Ben Veness, Student Senate Fellow: (email)

Her Excellency Professor Marie Bashir AC CVO, Chancellor: (Chancellor’s Office)

SUBJECT: USU-University commercial takeover 
Her Excellency Professor Marie Bashir AC CVO / Ben VenessI write to you in support of the University of Sydney Union, and its autonomy as Australia’s leading Student Union – and the last truly independent one left standing. The proposed takeover of the USU’s commercial services will deny the USU crucial funding to deliver the extensive student programs and services that the entire campus community holds dear. 
As such, I request that within the next senate meeting this decision be addressed, and may the USU’s independence and financial autonomy be recognised by allowing them to retain the rights to run the commercial services (including the USVC). 
I also request that the Senate consider my personal wish for the Student Service and Amenities Fee that I will pay to be put towards programs and services that I value, in particular, those that are run by peers that I trust in the Student Union.
Please consider the student voice in this important decision. 
Sincerely, NAME


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Thanks for the informative update, everyone.

  3. Thank you such an informative response Sibella, I know feel even more strongly about this. I have sent the emails, keep us in touch!

  4. Thank you all for your hard work!
    Let's hope they see sense.

  5. So am I going to have to pay the SSAF as well as the Access membership?

  6. Despite our efforts to propose a universal access model, the University is unwilling to give any more funding to student organisations next year. It's highly likely that we will be selling Access cards next year, and we will be expanding our services and member benefits as much as possible.

  7. So does 'unwilling to give any more funding' mean that they have allocated some ssaf funding to student organizations for next year, just not the universal access model?