ANUSA President: Ben Gill
Why are you not looking to re-accredit with the National Union of Students?
After hearing the presentations from the NUS executives and the discussion at SRC, I had strong concerns regarding the financial mismanagement, the toxic environment reported at National Conferences putting delegates mental health and wellbeing at risk, and the decision to defund the autonomous Indigenous, Disabilities, and International Students Departments.
Over three years, the NUS has run deficits totalling more than a third of a million dollars, deficits the Union did not report until last year. Students are regularly verbally abused on the conference floor at NUS’ national conference, and members of the executive have failed to call out members of their factions when bullying takes place. I don’t understand how anyone can advocate that we should pay so ANU students can attend a conference in which they are likely to be verbally abused.
NUS still maintain a travel budget of $50,000, while the autonomous departments that need more- not less representation- have seen funding slashed. There are also issues prioritising some autonomous departments over others i.e. Women’s and Queer still receive a wage. This is not to say that the works of these department is not invaluable, but rather the International, Disabilities and International Departments are not given the same opportunity and do not appear to be considered on the same level.
If the motion is successful, and ANUSA does not re-acccredit with the NUS, are you worried that ANU students will be left out of national campaigns, their voices won’t be heard or ANUSA won’t be able to have a say in student matters spearheaded by the NUS?
I’m worried that ANU students are already missing out. NUS deciding to not sufficiently fund department officers means that ANU’s indigenous and international students, as well as students with disabilities, are already missing out on representation on a national level. The NUS has made it clear that fighting deregulation is their only priority. While this fight is vital for students, ANUSA will continue to play a vital role in staging rallies that oppose deregulation and utilising our media contacts in Canberra to advocate for our students.
There are concerns around NUS’ campaigns representing marginalised students, in particular the recent posters, which victimise students with disabilities using the phrase “having a disability is already expensive enough” and the recent ‘Racism Is….’ campaign of which the message was unclear due to ill-thought graphic design. The voices of ANU students are already drowned out at National Conference, which decides NUS policy, where student interest is less important than self-serving factions vying for power and influence. While we all want a strong national voice for Students in Australia, not even the NUS executive could argue that NUS provides that, given the questions of equality, governance and the unacceptable treatment of delegates at National Conference.
How are you managing the divide within ANUSA over NUS accreditiation?
Yes, people are divided but you’d want a representative association to actually consider what they are voting for and actually think about. So the discussion that we saw at SRC was very robust and professional. People disagree on different things, people have different agendas, different ideas about what should and shouldn’t happen. At the end of the day, what will be, will be. If the SRC chooses to vote one way, that’s what the association will do. I have been trying to emphasise conflict- people have a tendency to avoid it, but in fact, it is actually one of the most efficient ways to get things done, and I think without it, people would end up resenting each other afterwards. So while I have been trying to bring everything to the forefront, we have been having some quite frank discussions about what is in the best interest long term, but it is a sensitive topic. People don’t need to be right or in a consensus all the time to get things done, but they do need to feel like they have been heard, and I think that is what SRC did.
If the SRC votes to not re-accredit, will that symbolise the end of NUS?
I think that would be overemphasising our position in the grand scheme of things. I mean there is that ‘reputational thing’; this is the national university, which could have the domino effect. But it really comes down to how much NUS office bearers consider their organisation valuable. If they say our members, the universities, want change, we change. If our business model is not currently working, what will regain the trust of those institutions. Once an organisation is caught out, whether it’s a policy they didn’t have or financial governance, once that has been identified, you have no option but to change. I like to see that we would consider re-accrediting next year, that NUS is a much more effective and they may very well change around in the next few months, but where they are currently, something needs to change.
If the SRC votes to re-accredit, will you stick to the original re-accreditation fee of $5000?
The reasoning behind the original motion was that was what we budgeted for. If the SRC wishes to go higher than that, constitutionally we will need to take that to an OGM to alter the budget. If the students think that it of the utmost importance that we do pay a higher re-accreditation fee, then that is what the SRC decides. But I don’t want to have to start not doing projects that we agreed to do.
What do you plan to do if ANUSA ends up re-accrediting with NUS? Will there be certain conditions for ANUSA to put forward to the NUS?
Should the SRC decide that it is in the best interest of students to re-accredit to NUS, I consider it my job to represent their views. However, I will be advocating strongly that any decision to re-affiliate [sic] will be on the condition that the NUS make autonomous departments a priority, fix their broken budget, increase transparency around decision making and address the toxic culture which permeates throughout its National Conference, stifles progress and inspires doubt. Whether we can demand that or not, I think more discussion needs to be had.
Personally, I like the idea of having a National Union of Students, I think it’s really important on a national level to do this, I just don’t know if NUS is currently where it needs to be to do that effectively. I think [the damaging behaviour] that happens at the conferences are a good example that more thought needs to be given to the fundamentals about how the organisation is run before they can really start being more effective.
ANUSA General Secretary, ANU Union Chair, NUS ACT Women’s Officer and member of Student Unity: Megan Lane
Why do you want to re-accredit with the National Union of Students?
I think it is really important for ANUSA to be affiliated to our peak national body to make sure that ANUSA has a say. We represent 11,000 students and it is important that these people are represented at the federal and state level. [The NUS] do it less in the ACT, but they do lobby state governments around welfare issues. Deregulation represents the biggest threat to student welfare and quality education in Australia since… I can’t think of a similar example. So it is important that ANUSA and the students at ANU have a say.
The biggest thing that came out of SRC the other week is that the biggest concerns seem to be around the defunding of autonomous office bearers and departments. You have to think long and hard about why that is less of an issue, and I guess that is because I think NUS’ primary role is to represent students for quality, accessible and equitable education. So welfare for me is a secondary tier. [Women’s Officer] Loren Ovens raised the fact that the women’s campaign is centred on the cost of deregulation on women, and for me that is entirely appropriate. Women will pay twice as more under deregulation, and just because it is not about safety on campus, does not mean it is not a valuable campaign. The Women’s Department only ever runs one campaign a year and this year- the year of the greatest threat to education quality and accessibility ever- it is appropriate that the Women’s Officer looks at women’s access to education. I also don’t think that safety on campus is something best dealt with by NUS, because it is not an issue that is solely dealt with university to university. If you are a serious harasser or sexually assault somebody, that falls under the criminal code. That is not something you lobby a government around. NUS does not lobby governments around safety on campus, it lobbies around the cost of a degree and accessibility and about how ATARs are formulated. I think safety on campus is something that is best dealt with at a lower level, directly from students at the university, because every university is different and its issues are different.
In the previous SRC meeting, ANUSA Vice-President James Waugh stated that the NUS is not the strong national body that ANUSA requires. What do you have to say about this?
So I am taking a course this semester in political pressure groups and lobbying- James Waugh is also taking this course, I might add- and what all the studies say is that one group is never enough. For an issue to really get momentum and to really create change, it seems to me that many groups have to be involved to represent different sides of the argument until everyone forms a consensus; it is all about narrative building. So NUS tells part of the narrative; the NTU tells part of the narrative; individual universities, the Group of 8, they tell part of the narrative; and together, they weave such a rich tapestry of evidence and reason, that in the end creates consensus at a government level. The NTU’s job is to represent staff and lecturers and that side of tertiary education. If students hadn’t have gotten out and rallied and rioted in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Brisbane and Perth last year, the government would have thought [deregulation] was fine. NUS does a really good job of finely treading the line between action and lobbying to make sure that the government is very aware when something is not okay.
And we are part of that narrative. Students have to be part of the narrative if we are going to stop deregulation. Jacqui Lambie and Ricky Muir both spoke when they were voting down deregulation, about the fact that [they were voting this way] because students had contacted them and they had sat down and spoken with student leaders. That is NUS and those are the campaigns that NUS run. Because of those interactions, they decided that it needed to go to a senate inquiry; it needed to go to an election. Innovative campaigns that take the voice of students to parliamentarians- no other university or student body would do that.
If the SRC votes to not re-accredit, will that symbolise the end of NUS?
So generally I am not a big fan of the idea that dominoes fall. But I think that NUS is a delicate institution because it is a year-to-year organisation. ANUSA, I believe, has a relatively high profile amongst other universities in Australia, and if we choose to walk away from NUS, I think that would be the first domino to fall. I don’t think it symbolises the end of NUS but I think it is a slippery slope. ANU students have a valuable contribution to make at NUS and it would be a shame for that not to be exercised. Last year, four students from ANU spoke at NUS; that is more than some universities. Some delegates just go and don’t speak and just vote but four of us spoke. We make a real contribution on the floor.
Does ANUSA need the NUS for the government to hear its voice? For example, also in the last SRC meeting, previous Education Officer Laura Wey’s anti-deregulation protest was used as an example of a successful independent movement.
Part of the reason I think Laura’s actions were so successful is because they were part of that broader movement. They were on the national days of action. The idea that we get the benefits of NUS without having to be part of it or paying for it, I think that is a really dangerous idea because if everyone thought like that, that would be the end of NUS. Certainly, if that thinking is pervasive in the SRC- and pervasive throughout SRC’s in the country- that would spell the end of NUS because you don’t get anything for nothing in this world. If NUS is not equipped with resources then it will die. If students don’t think that lobbying the government is valuable, then don’t accredit to NUS. If students don’t think that organised national days of action are valuable, don’t accredit to NUS. If they don’t think that consistent messaging from students about deregulation is valuable, don’t accredit to NUS. These are all the things that resulted in deregulation not passing last time. The idea that ANU can do its own thing is true but if everyone thought like that, NUS would be over very quickly and we would lose those big-ticket items, like the lobbying efforts.
Is it practical for ANUSA to not accredit this year but consider re-accrediting with the NUS next year instead?
One of the things that were mentioned [in the last SRC meeting] was financial mismanagement by past NUS general-secretaries and other executive members. I would say that ANUSA had exactly the same problem, in fact, possibly even worse. [ANUSA] underwent a review, put in new financial practices, and now we don’t allow just anyone to sign off on cheques. The NUS has gone through the same process. They found out there was a problem, they sacked their auditors, they changed their accounting and bookkeeping staff, they hired new staff and auditors, and now they are in a much better place for financial governance. Anyone who wishes to crucify NUS about that, should continue to crucify ANUSA. If you are willing to forgive ANUSA for its faults, because it repented and it underwent reviews- the university reviewed ANUSA and they are all through our accounts now- NUS holds itself to a higher standard now and that is good for students.
Conference culture was also raised as a significant deterrent to re-accreditationn. Do you share the same negative experiences of NUS Conferences?
I loved the Conference. In fairness, I am a bit antagonistic as a person, and people are incredibly passionate about issues. People cry about whether or not education should be free or should be paid via HECs. That is the kind of environment the conference is. It is incredibly emotional and it is not just data and policy fuelled, it is emotionally fuelled too. So people find that their emotions are hurt very easily. If they are deeply invested in an issue, it is very easy to offend people at conference. Everyone yells. There is a lot of banter but it is all meant in jest. It could be that I am less easily offended, and having attended a few political conferences, I see it for what it is. I am not saying it is the best set up, but you have to allow room for passion. There should be no room for needless rudeness and there is no space for bullying. There is a real perception that Student Unity are the bad guys, and they hate everybody and everybody hates them- and it’s not just at NUS, it happens at ANU too. But I am not in this game to hate anybody or hurt anybody. We are all here because we generally believe in good outcomes for students; we believe that students best lead those outcomes. I believe I make student politics a better place by being here, and so does every other person who is on that conference floor, no matter what faction or state or university they are from, that’s why they are there. [The NUS Conference] Is fuelled by hate and passion, and unfortunately if you cant handle the heat, get out of the kitchen.