State of the Union: A Comparative Look at NUS

This article was adapted from a report compiled by the ANUSA Policy Analysis Working Group.

Image: National Union of Students

With a 2016 expenditure of $740,000 and almost $1,000,000 in assets, one would hope that Australia’s National Union of Students (NUS) was led by responsible and capable officer bearers, representative of the students whom they purport to represent. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case.

The financial mismanagement of previous executives, combined with prolific factionalism, casts the NUS in a poor light. Is it even possible to run a capable national student union? We will look at some student unions in other countries to see if challenges such as a lack of transparency, poor funding or factionalism affect other national student unions or are a malaise peculiar to Australia.

Student unions typically have two functions: representing student interests to universities and governments and providing services to the student population. The latter could include commercial or retail services, extracurricular activities, or counselling services.

The biggest challenge for unions by far is how they can get money. The introduction of Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) by the Howard Government allowed students to opt-out of membership in their respective union, thereby drastically reducing the income of student unions. As the NUS gets most of its funding from affiliation fees paid by university-level associations, VSU created a financial problem for the NUS which saw many services be cut. This issue is not unique to Australia – both New Zealand and the UK have introduced similar laws.

In the UK, legislation dictates that students who did opt-out of union membership must still be allowed to access services provided by the union, which may potentially decrease the revenue of the union but does keep its expenditure relatively stable. The New Zealand Union of Students Associations (NZUSA) has fared much better, managing to maintain a broad portfolio of activities.

Most impressive of these is NZUSA’s research program, a highly-regarded research unit used to inform policy debates and outcomes. A lack of impartial and relevant data permeates the discourse in Australia – it is commendable the NZUSA can maintain a world-class research program in a post-VSU environment.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, disaffiliation of local university unions from their national association is in correlation to high levels of factionalism and financial mismanagement in the national body. In 2016, only 17 of 39 Australian university student unions affiliated with the NUS. Fewer still paid full affiliation fees, resulting in a drop of $200,000 in affiliations revenue between 2015-2016.

In the same period in the UK, many universities held referenda on whether to disaffiliate from NUS-UK. At least three student unions disaffiliated, citing a lack of transparency and democracy, as well as overly-partisan campaigns focussing on criticisms of one particular political party. It bolsters my confidence in the Australian NUS to see its UK counterpart suffering from the same problems—perhaps this is endemic to national student unions rather than being caused by Australia’s own student representatives.

Few people following our national representative body need to be reminded of the extent to which factionalism and poor financial management are present at the NUS. For example, an independent audit commissioned by the executive in 2014 found, deficits between 2011 and 2014 totalled half of the 2016 operating budget. It was also found factional allegiances held more power than overarching NUS goals or campaigns. In 2016, the NUS General Secretary (from one faction) sought legal advice about removing the then-President (from another faction) over allegations the President neglected her duties. Incompetence or factional fighting, I’ll let you decide.

It is no different in the UK. Over a period from 2010 – 2014, the NUS-UK backflipped about three times on their policy of free tertiary education, depending on which faction gained power. The backflips occurred in the midst of another unsuccessful campaign against tuition fee increases. It begs the question whether – and to what extent – unprofessionalism impacted the effectiveness of the union’s lobbying.

Now might be the rare time we look to the USA for a solution. In their never-ending quest for liberty, democracy and the free market, their ‘student governments’ have no peak national representative body – instead, they have many. The largest represents 1.5 million students out of the 21 million students studying in the US. There are 41 state-wide Student Associations in 34 states, representing a total of 6.3 million students on 634 campuses (out of about 5000).

Although smaller bodies may lead to reduced influence by any one national body, it could mean there is a greater degree of accountability. If a particular university’s student union is unhappy with the state or national association currently representing them, they could easily switch to a competing association. This could not happen in Australia as the NUS is the only national body representing our tertiary students.

The NUS seems to be no worse than any of the other national student unions. This is no excuse to celebrate, however, as it still faces issues of competency, transparency and factionalism. Maybe some competition in the student union market might force the NUS to address these problems.

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