Words by Aryan Golanjan
Every year, in December, hordes of student politicians converge upon a Victorian university for a week to debate, discuss and decide policy, as well as to elect the following year’s National Union of Students’ (NUS) officer bearers. The NUS is both a lobby group and representative body for students of higher education across Australia, with seventeen university unions allied as of 2016.
Represented at this National Conference, better known as NatCon, are many major Australian universities, including UTS. Not only is the NUS the peak representative body for all Australian students, but you’re also paying the affiliate fees, which in 2016 amounted to $50,000.
NatCon is traditionally a factional playground, with delegates primarily fitting into the following factions: National Labor Students (Labor Left), Unity (Labor Right), Socialist Alternative, National Independents, Liberal Students, Grassroots Left, and small-i independents. Members of factions traditionally vote as one group, with calls of, “Unity up!” or “NLS up!” from a factional head signalling to the faction’s members to raise their lanyards in order to vote for the motion. This results in delegates sometimes voting for motions they have either not read or do not agree with.
Although there are many policies under the chapters of Unionism, Education, Welfare, Disabilities, Women’s, Ethnocultural, ATSI, Queer and Constitutional, motions are traditionally discussed in large ‘blocs’, where policies that are only hypothetically linked must be spoken on as if they were one motion, leading to general discussions rather than specific analysis. Additionally, these blocs are decided upon by a committee of students who have been known to literally eat the paper a policy is written on if they do not agree with it.
Physical altercations are common, as is the practice of screaming at or chanting over a speaker or faction with which another faction disagrees. Most controversially, this occurred on several occasions when a Liberal student proposed policy, with members of Socialist Alternative in staunch opposition to Liberal students being provided a platform within the union.
These scenes are common at NatCon, which operates with little to no transparency. Filming is banned during the entirety of conference, despite policy proposed and moved in 2015 by Robby Magyar, the National Welfare Officer in 2016, to allow filming of National Officer report backs and candidate speeches. Magyar told Vertigo the ban on filming during these sessions was, “really unfortunate” stating that, “this is definitely where the bulk of transparency is needed, as these are people who are elected by students to use student money for campaigns, activism and lobbying.” When one considers the numerous accusations leveraged at National Office Bearers for doing insufficient work, Magyar’s comments seem more than reasonable.
Minutes from each conference are generally not made publicly available, meaning that much of each conference’s policy discussion never sees the light of day. This masks a significant amount of dialogue on issues that affect students, including access to welfare, disability services, and education campaigns. Greater transparency at the conference could prevent scenes that occurred this year, such as a lengthy disagreement over whether the Union should produce a cookbook, which many delegates and commentators argue took away from time on policy chapters such as the ATSI and Queer chapters, which were discussed in the space of an hour on the last night of conference due to a lack of time.
All of this, combined with the $60,000 loss the Union operated under in 2016, seems disheartening. However, Office Bearers and organisers have taken steps to improve the NatCon experience. This year was the first year that an official grievance officer was employed for the duration of conference, and anecdotal evidence from attendees points to a more relaxed conference atmosphere than in previous years. More generally, National Office Bearers have run effective nationwide campaigns, including Women’s Officer Heidi La Paglia’s significant work on sexual assault and harassment. Her work led directly to further investigation by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and Universities Australia as part of the Respect. Now. Always. Campaign, which is the first survey by the AHRC that specifically targets on-campus sexual assault, the results of which are to be released in the next few months. Welfare Officer Robby Magyar’s nationwide campaign to cut textbook prices (albeit controversially) was another achievement. Also worth mentioning, programs with trade unions to prevent youth worker exploitation in response to the government’s PaTH program and running the Student Wellbeing Survey in conjunction with Headspace are both campaigns that students outside the stupol bubble have engaged with.
Despite this, more universities are either cutting their affiliation fees, or deciding against reaccreditation to the NUS altogether. Earlier this year, the ANU Students Association voted not to reaccredit to NUS, as have the University of Wollongong and the University of Tasmania, and in 2017, Melbourne University will pay $30,000 to NUS – $45,000 less than in 2016.
Common concerns cited by these universities are the effectiveness of NUS as a national student organisation and the behaviour of delegates at the annual conference. NUS themselves have commissioned an independent audit into the financial and structural operations of the organisation; however these pages were omitted from the financial documents that were circulated during the duration of the conference.
A question that’s been posed by many is whether NUS is actually capable of being reformed to effectively represent all student voices, or whether it is on track for an inevitable collapse. Magyar told Vertigo that in order to improve, “NUS needs to better engage students, to ensure its relevance and survival. NUS needs more work to be done by its elected Office Bearers in all of these areas, as its role has shifted to address the future, not just the present. NUS needs to be worked on so it acts more like a union, less like a high school SRC.” Either way, it’s evident that there is a desperate need for reform, and these reforms will only come about if those in power believe they are necessary enough to take affirmative action.