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What I learnt from UNSW

Tuesday 08-12-2015 - 09:41

Last week I was in Sydney, Australia so I took the opportunity to visit Arc, the student association at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) to find out about the student movement in Australia and try to understand some of the legislative and organisational changes they have experienced over the last decade or so.

Some of you may be very familiar with the changes that have taken place over the last decade as the Australian government drove a shift from compulsory to voluntary student unionism. I met with Tom Morrisson the chair of the board (Tom is a student and chair of the board is a part time role), Billy Bruffey, president of student representation and Shelley Valentine, director of student services.

At a time when the UK government questions the accountability and transparency of students' unions in their Higher Education Green Paper published on Thursday 5 November there are some interesting parallels.

Some context:

1. Australian students have paid tuition fees since the 1989. Most students study in their home city and have a part time job. Like in the UK the government provides loans to enable students to cover their costs and these are repaid through compulsory repayment mechanisms.

2. Prior to 2005 there was compulsory student unionism and all students were required to pay a set fee of approximately $300 as part of their fees to be a member of their students' union.

3. In 2005, under John Howard's premiership, there was legislative change and membership of the students' union became voluntary. This led to a huge reduction in membership of the students' unions across Australia. In Arc's case at UNSW it reduced to circa 15 per cent. It is important to note that voluntary student unionism began to gain some legislative traction in the 1990s, with variations on the idea being briefly implemented in Western Australia and Victoria. Voluntary membership was also the policy of the Howard government who was in power federally from 1996. Although Labor reversed the state initiatives, the federal government brought in voluntary student union legislation using its new Senate majority in 2005 and the legislation came into full effect at the beginning of 2007. 

4. Individual university student organisations responded and remodelled differently during this period to try and be a voice and support for students. But it was clear that voluntary unionism wasn't working for students.

5. In 2012 a compulsory Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF) was introduced at federal (national level) and this is applied to all student fees. It goes to the university who are required to spend it on a menu of prescribed activities (see here) many of which are carried out by student organisations such as Arc at UNSW.

6. Arc provides a wide range of services to students including events, clubs, volunteering programs, advocacy and representation. It also provides a number of commercial services. It's turnover is circa $10.5 AUSD of which $3.8 AUSD is a main contract with UNSW (in many ways this is similar to a block grant).

7. As in the UK, universities and student organisations negotiate and compete in some areas such as sports and commercial services. The key distinction is not whether a university can deliver being the student representation, democracy and student leadership.

8. At national level, there is an organisation called NUS Australia for Higher Education only. They have a similar decision making and accountability model as the UK. Tom and Billy described a national movement with strong factions which are very visible at national conference through the colour of the T-shirt you wear. There are approximately 100 delegates at national conference which takes places over three days.

So in summary, over the last decade there has been a shift from compulsory student unionism to voluntary student unionism. The shift dramatically impacted on the financial sustainability of student organisations and their ability to represent students and provide the full range of services and support they had previously. The impact of this was recognised by the federal government in 2011 and enabling universities to charge up to $263 per student (in 2012). The SSAF goes directly to the university who then has the discretion to allocate the fee to services outlined in the prescribed activities, in some cases this includes providing a grant to their student organisation.

The introduction of the SSAF moved one step closer to compulsory student unionism in that all students have the right to be a member but they still have to opt in to membership. Membership at Arc tends to be at about 85 per cent of the student population by the end of the year, with postgraduate and mature students under-represented in their membership. Some students 'activate their membership entitlement' at the point they need support and or representation from the student organisation.

At a point when the UK government is questioning the accountability and transparency of students' unions there are some lessons to be learnt here - yes there are undoubtedly some areas that some SUs can improve - there always are - but as they have learned in Australia changing the system is not helpful. The legislative and policy changes undermined the stability of student organisations for a number of years which has impacted on their ability to meet the needs of the student body on campus and the SSAF whilst flawed is an important recognition of the role that student organisations play on campus.

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