06 September 2014


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,


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