Budget mismanagement does not justify money-grab

Only a student-controlled organisation can make the right choices for student money, writes Tim Matthews

This letter is in reply to Micheal Spence’s letter published in Honi Soit during O-Week 2012.

At best, the attempt by the University to seize control of the USU’s commercial operations can be viewed as a blatant money-grab in the context of near-negligent budgetary mismanagement. At worst, it can be seen as a continuation of a deliberate and unforgivable undervaluing of the student experience in financial decision-making.

The University of Sydney Union is by no means a soil on the University of Sydneys image, or a burden on its finances.

Perhaps most frustrating in these negotiations is the lack of a clear case for change. The Vice-Chancellor and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education), Derrick Armstrong, posit two arguments in their defence: that the USU suffers from poor financial management of its commercial operations, and that the quality of those services is sub-par.

To contend that the USU is negligent in its financial management of commercial outlets is to fundamentally misunderstand the purpose of these services. The question here has never been ‘who can make the most money?’.

I have no doubt that Dr Spence’s Sandstone Degree Factory Inc. could increase the profit margin of USU outlets. If the price of jugs at Manning went up from $10 to $15, it sure wouldn’t stop me from being there rather than in my Government lecture – but that isn’t the point.

The USU has always prioritised the experience of its members over its own commercial interests. It is not for want of checking its ledgers that the USU outlets at Mallett St (Nursing campus), the Conservatorium, Bosch, and Footbridge Station run at a loss.

The USU hands money to clubs for bar tabs not because anybody believes it to be the most strictly prudent expenditure of those funds, but because it creates a better and more inclusive social environment on campus. At their core, these are student services, not commercial services.

Moreover, at no point has Dr Spence actually made a case as to how his financial management of these services will be better. It isn’t overly cynical to suppose that what he means by ‘poor financial management’ is ‘I would like to charge you more for a Manning Burger.’ Consider this – the budgetary problems currently facing our University are so dire that Dr Spence made the public and unpopular decision to cut up to 340 staff this year. It’s hardly a leap to suggest that in this context the University won’t be able to resist holding you by the ankles and shaking you at the Fisher Coffee Cart until you plug their budget black hole.

Without defending the dodgy USU sushi that we’ve all succumbed to from time to time, there are equally few reasons to believe Dr Spence’s claims about the quality of service at Union outlets. The USU has made a concerted effort to fill all commercial vacancies in recent years through competitive tender – this has led to better food outlets and cafes such as Subway, Easyway and Parma.

This process will continue to improve the quality of such outlets. There is no reason to believe University-run food would appreciably increase in quality. An understanding of the student lifestyle is crucial to the delivery of relevant and successful commercial services. A student-controlled organisation is simply in a better position to reflect the interests of students in these judgements.

The USU is justified in fearing for its independence. It is only through financial autonomy that the Union’s members may continue to exercise ultimate discretion over its services and activities. The situation of the SRC and SUPRA, who renegotiate a funding agreement with the University annually is hardly optimal. For instance, this year the SRC will enter O-Week not knowing the size of its budget allocation for 2012. The University of Sydney Union is, financially speaking, nearly ten times the size of the SRC and SUPRA combined. Financial dependence upon the University of such kind would force the Union to annually negotiate over the continued existence of every club, of every event, of every service.

Finally, for a Vice-Chancellor so concerned with the reputational impact of the USU, Dr Spence shows a troubling lack of understanding about the way that students value these services on campus. Every time the University brags about its excellent orientation program, celebrates an outstanding cultural event, or claims a debating success for marketing purposes, they are enumerating the value of the University of Sydney Union to our university community. A $385 million research centre for fat kids excites next to nobody.

Almost every major international ranking system tells us that students coming to this University hoping for quality teaching and learning are set to be disappointed. The University of Sydney Union provides a campus community of which we should all be proud – and we shouldn’t let Dr Spence put his price on it.

Tim Matthews is the General Secretary of the Students Representative Council. He is not an employee of the USU and does not represent its board, management, or staff.