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The ANUSA Education Officer plays the role of dealing with higher education policy and organising campaigns on tertiary education. They also engage with the Government on its policies that affect tertiary students. Woroni sat down with Connect Presidential candidate Karan Dhamija and Amplify Education Officer candidate Jessy Wu to discuss their policies.

Wu told Woroni that she decided to run because of the opportunities education opened for people, particular her parents who were able to use education to access a better future in New Zealand after struggling during China’s Cultural Revolution. She also hopes to oppose Government policies that threaten these opportunities, and highlighted her experiences in policy, particularly working for the Department of Education.

Dhamija told Woroni that they didn’t run an Education Officer as Connect didn’t want to fill the position just for the sake of it – they would rather have an empty position rather than a candidate who was only partially competent and committed. Dhamija also noted that his personal experiences were similar to Wu’s, and referenced his experience in education policy, working to oppose fee deregulation through ANUSA.

Higher Education

In regards to ensuring that their advocacy has impact, Wu stated that their campaigns would “associate these abstract, technical policies with a human cost.” She used the proposed $152 million cut to the HEPPP program as an example, wanting to underline the vast number of low SES students that would be adversely affected. She also said that discussions with people working low-end jobs trying to repay HECS-HELP debts would be useful in opposing the lowering to the repayment threshold.

Dhamija expanded on this, asserting that the final form of these proposed policies were yet to be seen, given that they are still proposals from a Government options paper. He also noted that the lowering of the HECS-HELP repayment threshold was still impacted by other factors, mentioning increased repayment rates for higher earners.

Wu then added that Amplify wanted to provide feasible alternatives to Government policy, the absence of which was “a weakness of student activism in the past.” In light of this, she would be open to tweaking the currently frozen 8% repayment rate for better-off students earning over $101,900 while ensuring that low SES students were safeguarded.

In response, the Connect presidential candidate argued that ultimately, education campaigns would have to be focused and not attempting to tackle too many issues at once.

The National Union of Students (NUS)

Woroni then asked the candidates if ANUSA was to re-affiliate with the NUS, and if this would benefit the Association. Dhamija’s stance was to continuously review the situation at the NUS and its national conference, emphasising that it was “quite horrible” when he went in 2013, and has seen little improvement up to now.

According to his ticket’s position, the five delegates to be elected would go as observers, and liaise with NUS officials to ensure that ANUSA delegates are respected and safe. He also stated that “NUS isn’t nearly as effective as it can be because of the way it’s run,” and wanted ANUSA delegates looked after, especially in an environment of political conflict.

Wu spoke on using a similar tone; Amplify is not certain that they can ensure the wellbeing of the NUS delegates, and consequently will only send Wu and Amplify Presidential candidate James Connolly should they succeed. She said that Amplify wanted to protect its delegates from all forms of assault, and would therefore avoid sending young or inexperienced students.

Wu also recognised that ANU does not benefit hugely from the NUS, given how active ANUSA is and the multiple advocacy options available to undergraduates. However, she stressed that given this position of privilege, ANUSA should still contribute to advocacy through the union.

“We believe in student unionism, but we feel that the NUS as it exists now is not a place we’re happy to send ANU students until changes have been made, and we will scrutinise that,” she said.

“For NUS, we want to achieve the best for [our delegates]… it purely comes from a functional and wellbeing point of view,” Dhamija stated.

Consulting Low SES Students?

Woroni also asked both tickets if they had consulted low SES students in their policymaking, given that experiences of financial hardship are not unitary nor do they elicit uniform responses.

Wu responded by saying that core policies were formulated with the participation of six ticket members who identified as low SES. However, she emphasised Amplify’s desire to empower these low SES students to bring their experiences into projects they wanted to champion. She gave the example of CAP representatives wanting to increase accessibility and reform payment models for CAP overseas programs.

Dhamija also said that members of Connect identified as low SES and were also consulted in policy formation, coming to the conclusion that the “biggest barrier to studying at ANU was accommodation costs.” Accordingly, Connect is proposing to pressure the ANU to improve equity scholarships, rather than merit-based awards that, while they do benefit some low SES students, “inherently, structurally benefit someone from a more fortunate background.”

Nevertheless, Wu claimed that the University Council deemed expanding equity-based scholarships to be unfeasible because of their cost. Dhamija defended his ticket’s policies, arguing that potential funding for equity scholarships could be taken from merit-based ones.

However, the discussion turned into debate on the constitutionality of Connect policies, with Wu stressing that only the Education Officer is constitutionally allowed to lobby the government on higher education policy. She also attacked Connect’s plan to lobby the ACT Government for increased lighting, saying that the Braddon Forum and the Heritage Foundation were already doing so.

In response, the Connect president said that there was nothing wrong with overlaps in lobbying, and that there was nothing wrong in expanding the lobbying work of the Association especially given the narrower focus of the Education Officer.

“This is rewriting the constitution,” the Amplify candidate charged, and could result in “redirecting” ANUSA. She also questioned whether Connect was ready to make these changes, because of their inexperience with ANUSA and failure to understand the costs of redirecting the Association.

Countering, Dhamija said that his lobbying expansion would alter the constitution as much as Amplify’s policy to split the VP role, and their changes would not significantly alter the roles of the executive. Expanding advocacy should be the focus, according to Dhamija; constitutional changes should not be a stigma. Additionally, he defended his ticket’s experiences, asserting that they brought a wealth of experience from outside ANUSA and had been in talks with previous ANUSA executives.

Ultimately, Wu remained concerned that Connect’s relative inexperience in running ANUSA would bar them from making effective changes to the strategies and priorities of ANUSA.

Given that Connect lacks an Education candidate, Dhamija felt that “most likely, Jessy will be the Education Officer, and if I’m successful I look forward to working with her.”