The National Union of Students (NUS) is facing a dual political and economic crisis, with plummeting annual revenues and Indigenous students and students with disabilities striking out on their own to form separate lobbying collectives.
These moves follow the passage of controversial motions at this year’s recent national conference, which will strip the National Disabilities Officer, National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Officer and National International Students Officer of pay.
This situation has been driven by the Union’s economic misfortune.
Deanna Taylor, the 2014 National President of NUS, told New Matilda, “NUS is in a problematic financial situation. Over the past several years we have run significant deficits, and as a consequence our reserves have dropped significantly”.
“The advice given to NUS is that were our income and expenditure levels to remain status quo, NUS would not exist beyond the next few years,” she said.
Details of the Union’s financial pain were laid bare at this year’s national conference following revelations that previous National General Secretaries misrepresented the state of the Union’s finances, concerning losses of $95,504 over the last financial year, and $78,223 the year before.
As the peak lobbying body for students NUS has been the driving force behind the year’s National Days of Action, which have seen hundreds of thousands of students converge in capital cities across the country to protest the government’s plans to deregulate university fees.
Renowned as a training ground for future parliamentarians, NUS alumni include Julia Gillard, Kate Ellis and Tony Abbott.
The Union is dominated by Labor factions Student Unity (SU), the student wing of Labor Right, and National Labor Students (NLS), the student counterpart of Labor Left, and Trotskyist organisation Socialist Alternative.
This year, the three controlled conference floor with 35 per cent, 24 per cent and 15 per cent of the votes, respectively. The Conference was also attended by smaller factions, the National Independents (16 per cent) and Grassroots Left (4 per cent), a loose assemblage of broad-left students.
In the wake of falling revenue, a report commissioned at last year’s National Conference was prepared by consulting firm TL Consult, urging delegates to institute sweeping reforms.
“NUS structures need adjustment to reflect current and future demands on the managerial resources,” the executive summary of the report reads.
NUS relies entirely on fees paid by affiliated student unions. Following Voluntary Student Unionism, introduced under the Howard Government, cash-strapped unions have been unable, or sometimes unwilling, to stick with the Union.
Only 20 of Australia’s 39 student unions are members of the NUS according to a report in The Australian. Several universities, such as Macquarie University in NSW and Federation University in Victoria, lack student bodies entirely.
Taylor cited these bad budgetary conditions as the reason behind the cuts to the National Indigenous, International Students and Disability Officers’ stipends.
“The goal in reducing expenditure was to keep campaign and travel budgets protected as much as possible from heavy reductions in expenditure,” she said. However, the cost-cutting measures taken so far have backfired, with several groups sharply critical of the decision.
An open letter from Blacademy, a newly-minted national collective of Indigenous students, condemned the Union’s actions and called for the disaffiliation of campus unions and student bodies from NUS.
The students recorded their displeasure with the lack of action provided by the Union to address cuts to Indigenous education, such as “the end of the long-standing Indigenous Tutorial Assistance Scheme, widespread racism and settler colonialism in proposed and implemented curriculums, and the restructuring of Indigenous accommodation options”.
Blake Mooney, the 2013 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Officer defended the National ATSI Department and said he believed it had worked with governments, unions, Indigenous organisations and other NGOs over the year.
However, a screenshot obtained by University of Technology Sydney student magazine, Vertigo, revealed discontent at the conference’s decision to remove the ATSI Officer’s stipend.
“So much love for you all, so I’d never say this publicly – but what happened tonight is very disappointing,” Mooney told the Student Unity caucus.
Kate Alway, a Masters of Adult Education student at the University of Technology Sydney, said she was “encouraged” by Blacademy’s open letter to start a national network for students with disabilities, separate from NUS.
“There were other factors involve[d],” she said, “but the defunding was the catalyst.
“Defunding our Office Bearer's stipend not only reduces capacity in the movement, a movement where many people already struggle with extra barriers to involvement, but it shows us what NUS thinks of us.”
The network has not yet taken a position on whether it would recommend calls to disaffiliate from NUS, but has not ruled anything out pending discussion on the issue.
Raeesah Khan, President of Murdoch University’s student guild, which last year paid $10,000 to NUS, said she would be “lobbying for [the guild]to disaffiliate for a number of reasons… [but]mainly because of [NUS’s] treatment of the positions representing minority groups.”
She noted, however, that the decision would ultimately be left with the Murdoch Guild council.
Kyol Blakeney, President of the University of Sydney Students’ Representative Council, which paid NUS $72,000 last year, expressed similar concerns.
“I believe that there needs to be a national union for students,” he said.
“The issue I have with NUS is that while it claims it provides equal representation for all students, it decided to cut funding to departments that represent some of the most disadvantaged students.”
According to another source, the recommendations contained in TL Consult’s report followed extensive consultation sessions with students from affected autonomous groups. However, neither Mooney nor Blakeney (the then 2013 NSW ATSI Officer and 2013 University of Sydney SRC Indigenous Officer) had been consulted. However, it remains unclear as to how NUS plans to keep members engaged.
A senior campus figure from Western Australia, who wished to remain anonymous, also registered their displeasure after this year’s National Conference.
“Delegates from WA, which included three out of four WA Guild presidents, were unhappy with the way were treated at the conference and don’t hold NUS in very high esteem,” they said.
The four WA guilds provide over $120,000 each year.
Pat Dollard*, a Councillor with the University of Melbourne Student Union, which last year contributed $106,000 to NUS, told New Matilda the organisation would cut its payment to $50,000-$55,000 in 2015.
“I think universities should be paying less to join NUS and instead put that money into either on campus departments or into groups such ASEN (Australian Students Environmental Network), AQSN (Australian Queer Students Network), Blacademy and the new Disabilities organisation,” he said.
* CORRECTION: This article previously identified Pat Dollard as the President of the University of Melbourne Student Union. This is incorrect, Dollard is a councillor of the UMSU.
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