The other side of the NUS story



Image from ABC

NUS members in Melbourne protest against education cuts

When I came to ANU, I never intended to get actively involved in student politics. I viewed it as unproductive and a waste of time – a sort of ego trip and resume building exercise similar to the leadership positions in school that I was done with by the start of university. I had, however, been involved in the Australian Labor Party since I was in Year 11, and came to see it as the only legitimate tool for creating a fairer society. It was natural then that I joined ANU Labor Left on Open Day, where I met some of the most dedicated people in the fight for equality.

Throughout the year I was inspired to get involved after learning about funding cuts to the various schools within ANU, as well as the lack of support refugee-settled students have (those on bridging visas must pay unaffordable international fees). The faction that best represented my ideology was the National Labor Students (NLS), and I was inducted at the NUS Education Conference midway through this year. At the conference I learnt a lot from fellow students describing situations at their universities, and discussing how their administrations were trying to pull a number on them. The experience illustrated to me exactly why we need a national body to represent the interests of all students, and I have been passionate about the cause ever since.

I know that many people wouldn’t consider spending an entire week with hundreds of boisterous student politicians discussing policy until the early hours of the morning to be the ideal way to kick off their university break. The recent NUS National Conference (Nat Con), however, really didn’t live up to the infamy.

I went to the conference not knowing what to expect. I had heard from a lot of people at ANU that it was a vile “hack-fest”, so I arrived on the conference floor expecting blood. Surprisingly, I was let down. I would not describe conference floor as tame, but rather a place of passionate debate. While there were certainly times when I was disgusted by people’s beliefs, at many other times, I was impressed and inspired.

Conflict is an inevitable part of human nature, and condemning the NUS because Nat Con is conflict-prone is essentially condemning people for holding strong opinions. Instead, I would argue, we should be condemning the opinions themselves. During a speech by National Independent and elected ANU representative, Tom Kesina, for example, who spoke impressively and fiercely several times for (dis)ability inclusion, the Socialist Alternative faction became a rowdy mob because of what they thought was the mention of trigger warnings. For ten minutes they then rabbled on about how trigger warnings were “garbage”, saying “life is sad, fucking grow up.” It was repulsive to watch, but the Socialist Alternative eventually stopped and left the floor, taking quorum with them. I was sickened by their views and their behaviour of pulling quorum, especially on the subject of (dis)ability inclusion out of all things discussed at conference. While similarly disrespectful behaviour was common – including during discussions about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy –  I was not sickened by the conflict itself.

Despite this outlook, conflict can be detrimental to student welfare when the personal takes precedence over the political. In fact, in 2016, the ANUSA executive voted to disaccredit with the NUS – meaning they no longer help fund national campaigns and the general running of NUS –   citing ongoing concerns with the welfare of students that attend Nat Con. This is a legitimate concern that the NUS took several steps to address this year, including by employing a Grievance Officer who was present at all times on the conference floor.

What is never mentioned in the reports back from National Conference is the fact that despite the conflict, the four biggest factions constituting at least 95% of the delegates – Student Unity (Labor Right), National Labor Students (Labor Left), National Independents and Socialist Alternative – agree and vote unanimously on a majority of issues.

So, you can imagine my surprise when I returned to see the very negative discussion on ANU Stalkerspace about NUS and the National Conference it hosts. The post I saw initially raised a genuine concern about heckling during Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy, but it eventually led to the condemnation of the entire NUS. Interestingly, the most involved and apparently knowledgeable on the NUS were people who have never been to Nat Con and had developed their opinions from elsewhere. I made the mistake of getting involved in another one of these Stalkerspace discussions, only to be told by someone at home observing the Twitter feeds coming out of Nat Con that they knew better than I did with what was actually going on.

Before the conference there was discussion around the idea of livestreaming the conference floor – I am in favour of this occurring in the future as it would dispel a lot of myths, and hold both attendees and the student media accountable to the truth.

Regardless, Nat Con is a very small part of what the NUS is. The conference works to pass policy and elect office bearers for the following year. A large part of what the NUS does are the campaigns it runs and the crucial lobbying role it plays as the peak representative body of students. In 2016, NUS’ Women’s Officer, Heidi La Paglia, ran a phenomenal national campaign for student safety, in particular women’s safety on campus. It had ramifications that lead to the Australian Human Rights Commission conducting a nationwide survey about sexual assault and harassment at university to be presented to the Federal Parliament. Similarly, the wellbeing survey conducted in conjunction with Headspace was the work of the outgoing NUS National Welfare Officer, Robby Magyar, which provided us with valuable and damning information about the concerning state of student health in Australia. In 2014, the campaign against fee deregulation and the lobbying work of the NUS to the crossbench in the Senate ensured that those changes did not pass. These are just some of the many examples of the crucial work that the NUS does.

Unremarkably, most of the universities which are either unaffiliated or unaccredited with the NUS are the universities where students are being trodden upon by their vice-chancellors and administrations. The rollout of trimesters – three-semester-long academic year programs which enable universities to condense the three years of course content into two – is detrimental to good academic practice and does not lead to a better learning environment. Some universities have also attempted to move to an online model of tutorials, allowing them to decrease teaching staff by using the same lecture recordings for years in a row. Both these worrying trends, along with campus restructures and closures (such as the impending closure of Deakin University in Warrnambool, which plays a vital role in higher education in regional Victoria), are most prevalent where the NUS has no representation.

Judging the NUS and the role it plays solely on Nat Con is somewhat like deciding whether to go to ANU based on Stalkerspace – it’ll give you a very poor and totally unrepresentative impression of the organisation. Students and their voices are always stronger when they are united nationally – not feebly divided by campus.