The PARSA election debate took place on Wednesday 9 August, and raised big questions for voters, ahead of polling this week. The polls will be open until Friday for postgraduate and higher research students to decide whether current President Alyssa Shaw will return to her role, or ‘ANyou’ candidate Paul Taylor will take on the top job. Major issues highlighted included housing, safety on campus, accessibility, working rights and divestment from fossil fuels. A recurring debate was the level of independence PARSA should have from the ANU administration.

INDEPENDENCE FROM THE ANU

An overarching theme of the debate was about the level of independence PARSA should have from the ANU. Paul Taylor of ANyou called for greater independence, by separating the presidency role from the ANU Council role as called for in the Walker Report.

However, Alyssa Shaw from Progress said her networks with the ANU were integral to success on their policies, and relied heavily on her past experiences to sell her ticket.

Shaw said her political capital, rapport, understanding and influence was a good reason for her to be a member of the Council. She said speaking as President at council created greater credibility with the Council, and greater accountability. She also said it was strategic – the knowledge gained from council meetings could inform the direction of PARSA policy.

‘It’s hard to get a lot done,’ she said. ‘I’m hoping with the understanding and with the networks we’ve built up we’ll be able to create a significant amount of progress in a second term.’

‘We are independent,’ she further said. ‘We can criticise but we need to get outcomes.’

HOUSING

Taylor spoke most strongly of the need for improved housing options, and disparaged PARSA’s current support for postgraduate students in the Canberra housing market. He said it was a ‘critical issue’ and that PARSA didn’t have ‘a strong position or a strong support network to help students’. He hopes PARSA could work with the university to provide references and support in the rental market before the start of the next semester.

Shaw focussed on providing occupancy rather than tenancy agreements for students with UniLodge, and a slower and longer process of networking and lobbying for more on campus accommodation. ‘Patience is needed’ she said, citing the time taken in creating infrastructure and the ANU’s deficit in 2016.

Taylor disparaged this approach and called for ‘immediate action,’ and solutions which were immediate.

Shaw responded by saying that students were more aware of housing grants and during her term she’d seen an uptake in use of them. She also spoke of a need to counter commercialisation and ensure housing remained affordable throughout those changes.

SAFETY ON CAMPUS

Shaw stated that ‘one of the most pressing issues’ for PARSA advocates was the Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment survey and the opportunity it provided for change.  She referred to the vulnerability of postgrad students in supervisory relationships, and the higher proportion of PhD and HDR students at the ANU, as key areas of interest in the ANU’s response and PARSA’s advocacy.

Taylor also spoke of the need to continue the ‘building blocks’ provided by the current PARSA administration in providing safety on campus. He referred to Women’s Officer candidate with ANyou Blair Williams’ interest in continuing the process of improving policy. He spoke of the need for improved support for people reporting, and improved awareness and training for staff interacting with postgrad students.

He also called for an officer reporting on sexual assault and harassment, and again referred to the need for independence from the ANU to achieve policy objectives for a safer campus.

Shaw contrastingly spoke of a close working relationship between PARSA, ANUSA and the ANU on sexual assault and sexual harassment policy, and her personal experience with national groups lobbying for better sexual assault policy and community standards. She said she had ‘proven worth and merit in this issue as an advocate,’ which received claps.

Key policies for her were the centralised policy and the CRCC counsellor.

INTERNATIONAL STUDENT SUPPORT

Shaw began her introduction by referring to her broad advocacy efforts for postgraduate students at the ANU, saying that postgraduate students are often ‘made invisible’.

Of particular focus in the debate were international students.

Taylor suggested that working with migration lawyers and addressing housing issues for international students were the key issues. He also suggested internship programs and English tutoring would help international students integrate with Australian society. He said practical experience was necessary, and ANU+ volunteering schemes were too difficult for people to register and get recognised their extracurricular involvement.

‘It’s difficult to get access to networks,’ Taylor said. ‘We’re aware of their [international students] professional goals.’

Shaw spoke of her growing connections with the Council of International Students Australia (CISA) and student societies in dealing with visa changes earlier in the year. She worked to facilitate pathways to citizenship with the Indian Student’s Society and CISA. She also highlighted prior advocacy against changes requiring 4 years of permanent residency when acquiring citizenship.

She also spoke about workers rights for international students as a key issue, and said she had been working with unions to strengthen their position.

PARENTS AND FULL TIME WORKERS

Taylor attacked PARSA’s inaction on including parents and those working from 9-5. He said they ‘hadn’t engaged’ those groups, and hoped to extend welfare and support services past the 9-5. He also spoke about providing better childcare for HDR students.

Shaw spoke of the Big Day and how important it was for engaging parents. She said welfare and advocacy programs were now being promoted over social events and parties, and cited the ‘Shut Up and Write’ events as examples of engaging students outside the 9-5. She also said Skype and phone consultations were provided by officers to provide support to less connected or busy students, and linguistically diverse counsellors were available.

She also said that discussions were underway to incorporate postgraduate students into Griffin, beginning from next term.

MEDICAL STUDENTS

The ANyou ticket also aimed to reach out to medical students by offering $50 000 worth of support and services for those students, while simultaneously removing their obligation to pay SSAF fees. Taylor said that he wanted to remove an additional burden for those who would be so valued in society following their graduation.

Shaw rejected that approach, suggesting that to do so would be unfair to other students. ‘$50 000 for a specific set of students feels misleading and draws into question what this team thinks is an appropriate expenditure of PARSA funds,’ and that it was ‘not in the nature of the values of what PARSA should be striving for’. She said it was also important to recognise that the College of Medicine, Biology and Environment was not just medical students and that PARSA as a whole represented all students.

She said she had spoken with the College of Medicine’s administration about removing SSAF fees, but saw other groups of students as also in need of particular support, citing online postgraduate law students.

DIVESTMENT

Action on divestment was spearheaded by the ANyou campaign, who called for divestment within one year.

Shaw said they hadn’t had the opportunity to vote on divestment in the Council in 2017, but signalled her support for divestment and connections with student group Fossil Free ANU.

‘We need to be realistic about some of the bigger issues like sustainability… all these things need time.’ She said ‘we know what’s achievable but we also have goals that stretch us to achieve.’

Taylor said that the approach of achieving a few goals was ‘not good enough.’

The debate signalled deep divisions between Shaw’s vision and Taylor’s. Shaw presented a practical and long term set of policies which would continue the work she had done this year as President. Of key focus was long term solutions to housing issues, legal support for international students and action on sexual assault and harassment.

For Taylor, a radical platform of engaging the disenfranchised and providing more immediate policies to support the welfare of students was persuasive, but timelines were often critiqued as naive by his opposition.