Whether the student union, ANUSA, decides to accredit with the National Union of Students (NUS), or to even affiliate with the NUS has become a perennial debate at SRCs and general meetings. Students from the Labor factions on campus have moved twice now to raise the amount of money ANUSA pays to the NUS. At Week 12’s Special General Meeting (SGM) they successfully raised it from $20,000 to the full amount, just under $34,000. What exactly does this mean for students, and why are some students so eager for ANUSA to pay more?
The National Union of Students is composed of many smaller student unions across the country, who pay an annual fee for the right to vote on NUS policy. The NUS has existed since 1987, and replaced the Australian Union of Students which existed from 1937 until 1984. As the national body representing tertiary students, the NUS has been the face of many student campaigns, including against voluntary student unionism in the 2000s. Currently, its campaigns focus on lowering the age of independence, stopping the indexation of HECS fees to inflation, and addressing the housing and rental crisis.
However, the NUS is not without controversy. Three factions, Student Unity (Labor right), National Labor Students (Labor left) and Socialist Alternative dominatee the national union. They influence its policy at its annual National Conference, and its campaigns by holding office bearer and executive positions. Over the last two years, ANUSA’s executive has repeatedly and publicly questioned the worth of affiliating with the NUS. A perceived hyper factionalism and the career aspirations of Labor members led successive ANUSA presidents, Christian Flynn and Ben Yates, to criticise it heavily in their post-conference reports.
For several years ANUSA has been largely independent and most of its NUS delegates have not aligned with a faction.
With ANUSA presidents proving some of the staunchest critics of the NUS, it may come as a surprise that the union will now pay double its usual contribution to the NUS. Harry Danton-Jack and Isabella Harding moved a motion at the SGM to compel ANUSA to pay its “union dues.” Danton-Jack ran on the unsuccessful Labor-affiliated ticket last year, as did Harding who is also the NUS Disabilities Officer.
Late last year, Labor students moved a similar motion at an Ordinary General Meeting (OGM). This was to raise ANUSA’s contribution from $10,000 to the full amount, however following an amendment from Welfare Officer Kai Dreyfus-Ballesi, it was settled at $20,000. Now, Labor has achieved its original aim. With all undergraduate students able to vote in general meetings, both SAlt and Labor can tip the scales in their favour through numbers alone. Indeed, after the motion was passed at the SGM, several Labor students left the meeting.
Harry Danton-Jack, when speaking for the motion, argued that ANUSA not paying its full fee was a “scab” action. A scab is a traditional English term for a worker who crosses a picket line, diminishing the efficacy of a union strike. Nowadays, the term is used to apply to workers and unions who are perceived to betray the union cause, including working with management or by not fully supporting the union.
However NUS General Secretary Sheldon Gait confirmed that ANUSA will become the only student union in the country to pay its full accreditation amount. While other unions pay more, not a single one pays its “union dues.”
Danton-Jack also argued that the NUS receives national media attention – both its President and General-Secretary have appeared on the ABC and morning shows discussing HECS indexation – while ANUSA does not. On this point, ANUSA President Ben Yates chimed in to say that Phi O’Neill, the ANUSA general secretary, will be appearing on ABC radio in the coming weeks.
Nonetheless, all of the speakers for the motion stressed the national focus of the NUS and its ability to organise greater protests than ANUSA. Advocates pointed to the Posie Parker counter-protests earlier this year, and the campaign against HECS indexation. The NUS’ federal budget protest, which around 100 students attended, received national media attention.
The perceived efficacy of the NUS clearly shapes students’ preferences about how much ANUSA should pay. ANUSA President Ben Yates lauded SAlt LGTBIQA+ Officer Grace Hill’s work on the Posie Parker protests, but contrasted this with the overall ease of working with the NUS and its president, Bailey Riley. Yates attests he typically struggles to get email responses from Riley, one of two full-time elected members.
Additionally, an NUS media release included the contacts for all other NUS State Branch Presidents except for ACT Branch President Luke Harrison. All other State Branch Presidents are Labor-aligned, as is Riley, while Harrison is the only independent.
Others, such as General Representative and NUS voting member Skye Predavec, criticised the NUS’ hyper factionalism as signs of a stagnated, ineffective organisation. Such hyperfactionalism included several instances of physical violence and inappropriate language at NUS’ National Conference last year which this reporter witnessed. Harding argued that factionalism is in fact the result of underfunding, and that she had been pushed to rely on her faction (NLS) after quickly burning out in the role.
A question that immediately came up at the SGM and online later was how to pay for the full accreditation fee. ANUSA’s new budget after PARSA’s defunding is around $3 million. Ashlyn Horton of National Labor Students argues that ANUSA should stop funding social events, which accounts for around $10,000, and could spend less on leadership and professional development expenses, which account for around $30,000.
Ben Yates pushed back against these suggestions. Yates pointed out that the ANUSA annual survey shows students value social events, and that one aim of this budget line is to better engage with postgraduates later this year. The leadership and professional budget line that Horton refers to actually funds NUS Annual Conference attendance and NUS Presidents’ Conference attendance. Yates added that it also includes ANUSA staff continuing professional development required for the Community Legal Centre.
Horton further added that if no money could be found in this year’s budget, ANUSA could dip into “their (millions of dollars) of reserves.” Yates agreed that if revenue cannot cover expenditure, this is his preferred option, but criticised NLS for “being among those crying financial mismanagement” when ANUSA planned to use its reserves last year, only to push for the same strategy this year.
Last year, ANUSA intended to use its reserves to cover a $402,000 deficit, which was then alleviated by funding from the Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF) reserve pool. By the end of the year, ANUSA had increased its reserves by around $30,000.
It’s unclear what the financial impact of the extra $14,000 is on the NUS. General Secretary Sheldon Gait told Woroni that the NUS costs around $420,000 to run and that any money above that goes towards campaigns, projects, research and other projects. Gait said this would amount to around $50,000 this year. Presumably, the extra $14,000 will contribute to the latter pool.
Gait confirmed that he expected a small increase in affiliation revenue this year, but noted that “Overall affiliations have trended down since 2018.” He blamed this on financial cuts and increased service demand, and explained that the NUS was campaigning for a Minimum SSAF requirement to student organisations, to help alleviate these pressures.
As the cost of living crisis continues to worsen, the financial pressures on student unions will likely continue to increase. Other not-for-profits have reported some of the highest numbers of people accessing their services.
Last year, Woroni asked the previous General Secretary how many unions would need to disaffiliate from the NUS before it collapsed. Emily Sagolj, the General Secretary at the time, could not give an answer, but Gait said that if “more than one other of our top member organisations were to disaffiliate this would severely impact the NUS’ financial stability”. This includes, for example, the University of Melbourne Student Union which pays $90,000.
Gait thanked the ANUSA Council and Yates for being the “the first union in the last 5 years to fully pay their invoice.”
Every year, ANUSA debates and discusses its affiliation with the NUS, and how much it is willing to pay in accreditation fees. While some, such as Predavec, floated the idea of reversing the SGM motion at an SRC, ANU students can rest assured the debate will, at the very least, rear its head again next year.
Update: This article was updated to clarify that around 100 people attended the NUS Budget protest.
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