ANUSA has seven departments: the Queer*, Womens, Disabilities, BIPOC, International, Indigenous and Environmental departments. A Woroni investigation has highlighted the overwhelming demands of the job and the lack of adequate remuneration for Officers.
The departments are tasked with advocating on behalf of their members to the ANU, ANUSA, the public and the media. This includes liaising with ANUSA executives, attending meetings, and, for many officers, sitting on ANU working groups such as the Gender Equity Working Group, Reconciliation Action Plan Working Group, and Disability Access and Inclusion Working Group.
For many of the Officers, the job entails confronting instances of student trauma, including racism, transphobia, sexual assault and sexual harassment (SASH), and ableism. Officers’ duties are often consumed by pastoral care and advocacy. They focus on pushing for “specific, robust prevention and response action,” as articulated by Women’s Officer Avan Daruwalla.
BIPOC Officer Chanel Nguyen stated that “every Department officer gets a role description. But a lot of the time the stuff that you actually do or that actually contributes to your working hours is beyond the scope.” For Queer* Officer Remi Prica, “throughout the years it seems like officers have slowly done more and more and more and more, and so the expectation is to do the most an Officers’ done.”
Consultation: “…our opinion is valued the least.”
Officers alert ANU to student feedback and demands. This includes submitting structured reports such as the Broken Promises Report, Too Little Too Late and the Racism Report and attending ANU working groups. However, the Officers feel the ANU ignores their contributions. As Indigenous Officer Katchmirr Russell claimed, “we may represent the most on that committee [Reconciliation Action Plan Working Group], but our opinion is valued the least.”
Russell continued, “I think it’s always a very tokenistic consultation … they’ll ask for us so they can say that they’ve consulted with the Indigenous Officer, but they’ll never actually take what we say.”
Daruwalla spoke of the experience of attending such meetings with ANU staff, “if you don’t speak up in that meeting, and say that something’s wrong, then they’ll take that as students endorsing it.” But, as Russell expressed, being confident to express an opinion within that space is incredibly difficult: “talking to a roomful of teachers and staff members and Brian Schmidt, that’s terrifying … I still don’t feel secure.”
Officers claimed that even when they do speak up, the response from the University is subpar. Nguyen stated that “a lot of the time when I vocalise issues there’s often nothing done.” As the only department without one, Nguyen has been pushing for an autonomous BIPOC space on campus, “since December of last year … and it’s almost October now and nothing has been done.”
Similarly, Nguyen criticised the ANU’s official response to the Racism Report published in 2021,“I don’t even think they mentioned the word racism once in the response, and there hasn’t really been much effort to actually put in place the recommendations that were at the end of the report.”
Daruwalla echoed this sentiment, “you have to keep putting on repeated pressure and nothing happens. Ideally [for the ANU] you just would give up.”
Since 2017, the ANU has ranked as one of the worst universities in the country for sexual assault and harassment, but Daruwalla claims that “they [ANU] feel like they can’t formally acknowledge it, because that would be admitting that there’s a big problem in the system.”
Disability Department Co-Officers Maddison McCarthy and Mira Robson identified their role as the primary channel between student complaints and the university, “… Here’s our feedback that you didn’t ask for, but we have to give you.”
Russell spoke about the environment of the committees they sit on, noting an emphasis on KPIs over student experience and safety, “… they don’t talk about students there. They don’t talk about racism.”
Russell has been “pushing for a lot of stuff on anti-racism and pushing the BIPOC and Indigenous stuff and all the SASH issues.” They add, “I wouldn’t say I feel supported by the ANU. Of course not.”
Daruwalla is frustrated, “ANU has all the funding. They have the experts. They have people being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to make sure the system works. And then it’s students getting the flack when the system doesn’t work.”
Many Officers feel they are viewed as adversarial. Russell voiced this struggle, stating that as an Indigenous student ANU staff were “very, very keen to be very kind to me.” But then as soon as [the ANU] found out that I was a voice that they didn’t want to hear, that’s when everyone’s perspectives of me drastically changed.”
For Robson, “a lot of the things that we’re trying to push for require quite big changes… and I think that’s something that they don’t necessarily view so favourably.” Nguyen agreed, “I definitely think there’s some sort of reputational damage that could be incurred if this kind of information was more widespread, or more public [regarding racism and SASH on campus]. I feel like they tried to suppress a lot of those types of serious issues..”
Daruwalla stressed, “I’m not being adversarial when I give them the recommendations, because I’m saying, we’ve seen and understood this system, and this is what you need to do. We’re not even making you do the work of consultation. I’ll do it for you…all they have to do is listen.”
Support: Pretty Much Drowning
An ANU spokesperson, when asked for comment, stated that “ANU is committed to working with and consulting our student leaders and representatives…It is up to ANUSA and department officers as to how student representatives choose to consult with ANU and spend their time.” Further, “Student leaders play a vital role in making sure the student experience at ANU is the best it can be. Consultation and collaboration with our students is a key part of that …”
Department Officers work under ANUSA, which has recently come under fire for its treatment of the Officers and the unsafe, racist and ableist environment it creates. Departments and Department Officer stipends are funded by ANUSA’s Student Services and Amenities (SSAF) pool, worth $1.76 million in 2022.
ANUSA is also the body meant to provide training and support for the Officers. For Department Officers, ANUSA provides first aid and mental health care training, along with four appointments to see a psychologist.
For Russell, ANUSA’s promises to support departments seem superficial, “every single year, everybody on ANUSA runs on supporting departments as their election premise. But when push comes to shove, and we say something that they don’t like or challenge the executive, that becomes a very, very different story. … I don’t feel supported or respected or acknowledged by the executive.”
Robson articulated that the first aid and mental health care training ANUSA provides “does give you a very good foundation for a range of issues that you may encounter because there is quite a lot of pastoral care involved.”
However, according to McCarthy, “In terms of actually doing the role, there wasn’t any formal training.”
Daruwalla also underwent the aid training, which “honestly should be enough for what I should be doing.” (emphasis added)
Prica described the role as getting “thrown in the deep end and pretty much drown[ing].” For them, the lack of guidance made the student politics intimidating, “You’re either in or you’re not. You have to be very brave to just jump in as well.” They also stress there was “no support from the ANU or reaching out, especially when it comes to things like transphobia. They were just very quiet about it all, which is very frustrating.” For International Student Department (ISD) Officer Aarfa Khan the position was “the most stressful role.”
SRC 7 was charged with tension as Officers provided their final reports of the year. Consensus from Department Officers was that ANUSA is unsafe and discriminatory, with pleas from ISD Officer Aarfa Khan to “please respect Department Officers.”
Disability Co-Officers Robson and McCarthy spoke about “experiencing ableism in this space [ANUSA] in the last few months.” Daruwalla urged ANUSA to be “actively aware of microaggressions.” Freya Brown, the Environment Collective Officer stated that she had “nothing positive to say … this room [ANUSA] is so detached from real activism and what students actually want on campus.”
Russell also highlighted the difficulties with articulating these issues, “the Officers are never in a position where they’re comfortable with expressing discomfort … It’s just not a space where you can criticise someone for their job without seeming to criticise them as a person.”
The role is also accompanied by a heavy emotional burden, often leading to burn out. Prica stated that “I’ve definitely burnt out and I won’t be running next year.” With the exception of the Disability Co-Officers, none of the 2022 Department Officers re-ran for their positions next year.
The Work: Vicarious Trauma and Unethical Care
Russell emphasised the “emotional and cultural labour, which is a lot more than the job itself. …You’re constantly on the clock.” They also dismissed the four allocated counselling appointments as meaningless, “if you’re facing trauma based on your identity, [the appointments] are not going to solve the problem.”
Daruwalla stressed that the role “gives you quite a lot of vicarious trauma” as she knows that “students are actually currently actively suffering.” She emphasised further “it’s completely unethical for me to be” providing case work.
For Nguyen, “it’s very taxing on myself. In terms of the emotional and mental side of things because you have to listen to everyone’s experiences with racism and all these horrible incidents …I am just so limited in my capacity to support them, because of the ANUs incompetence.”
Robson stated that she “definitely looks at the university a little bit differently now. It’s the case of hearing a lot of complaints, and you’re not necessarily hearing all the success stories… it can be hard to keep seeing and doing these things and go ‘oh this is my university’.”
The Officer’s workload is immense. As students, Officers must balance both their roles and their studies, and for some, a job. The position receives a monthly stipend from ANUSA, however the wage is, according to Khan, “$3 an hour.” For Robson and McCarthy, their hourly pay worked to $7 an hour. Brown stressed the need for ANUSA to “do better … maybe start with the minimum wage.”
This sentiment is echoed by Prica, “a small stipend really reduces the access students have to these roles because if you don’t come from wealth, you don’t have that external support.”
Russell emphasised the “impossibility” of working in this role, particularly being low SES and balancing full time study. “[ANU] expects me to be their token Indigenous student without any concern to the fact that I am a student who has classes. I don’t think the University understands the need for representation.”
The Officers collectively articulated that balancing the role and being a student is infeasible. For Nguyen, “I’m still just a student. I’m still just tackling the university workload along with everyone else. …It’s just completely unrealistic and beyond my scope and pay grade.”
When asked to comment, ANUSA claimed it recognises the valuable work of the Departments and that they “are taking on burdens of student pastoral support that the university should be taking on.” ANUSA also highlighted the need for greater funding from ANU, identifying low SSAF funding as a limitation for funding Departments. However, Departments only receive 5.4 percent of ANUSA’s total funding, despite demands for more.
ANUSA stated that “ANU must take responsibility for student wellbeing and ensure that it is paid staff, not students, that take on disclosures and can appropriately assist marginalised students in need.” ANUSA also acknowledged there are issues within their system, particularly pertaining to meeting accessibility and funding.
At a Special General Meeting on the 26th of October, ANUSA passed a motion raising total department stipends by $10,000 in next year’s budget. This means there is now $25,000 for each Department to share amongst its executive, should the ANU provide the money for it.
Officers are not the only students who often feel exploited by the ANU. The lockdown last year exacerbated Senior Residents’ feelings that the ANU had taken advantage of them for inadequate remuneration. Between unsalaried work for the ANU and a cost of living crisis, pressure on both students and the ANU is mounting.
Ultimately, the Officers take on these positions because they care about the marginalised students the Departments are set up for. They recognise the issues in the ANU system, and work extraordinarily hard to build community, make their voices heard, and make change.
As Russell puts it, “I really do think that the Officers are in the best position to report back to the university on what students need. We are elected representatives for our communities, and if anyone’s going to know it’s us, specifically us. The problem is that we’re not paid to do that. And we’re also not respected for it.”
Woroni would like to thank the officers for the time they gave to being interviewed and for reliving traumatic experiences.
If you have found the contents of this article distressing, the following resources are available:
ANU Student Safety and Wellbeing
(02) 6125 2211
ANU BIPOC Department
ANU Indigenous Department
ANU Disabilities Students’ Association
(02) 6125 2442
1800 737 732
ANU Women’s Department
ANU Queer* Department
ANU Environmental Collective
ANU Respectful Relationships Unit
Disclosure: Woroni also receives SSAF funding, and its Editors and sub-editors receive honoraria (similar to Officer stipends).
We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which Woroni, Woroni Radio and Woroni TV are created, edited, published, printed and distributed. We pay our respects to Elders past and present and emerging. We acknowledge that the name Woroni was taken from the Wadi Wadi Nation without permission, and we are striving to do better for future reconciliation.