We must work together to improve student services

A joint venture between the University and the Union is required, writes Michael Spence

I’m aware that towards the end of last year and in social media over the break, there has been a lot of discussion about the University’s negotiations with the University of Sydney Union (USU) about funding and the provi- sion of retail and catering services on campus.

I want to correct some misunderstandings, to explain a little of the background, and to assure you that I consider student control of student organisations to be vitally important.

After the introduction of Voluntary Student Unionism by the Federal Government in 2006, the student organisations could no longer charge all students compulsory membership fees. At many universities, this proved disastrous for students’ experience of campus life. Fortunately, the University of Sydney was able to help out – in 2011, we provided about $9 million to fund all of our student organisations. But this, of course, was money that could otherwise have been used for teaching.

Back in 2006, the University looked for ways to provide the USU with revenue-generating opportunities so the organisation could, in time, become self-funding. In 2007, we entered into agreements which gave the USU financial support to maintain their food and beverage services, retail and childcare, in the hope that such funding would eventually be unnecessary. (Other food and beverage locations such as Taste and Ralph’s are not covered by this agreement but managed either by the University or by the SUSF.) A year later the University also gave the USU the right to hire out approximately 250 venues on campus.

Though well-intentioned, this approach hasn’t really worked. We have been paying the USU’s electricity, telephone and IT bills, while being charged to hire our own venues. In successive surveys, you have told us that the food in Newtown and Glebe is cheaper and better, and that recreational spaces on campus aren’t as good as you’d expect. It’s the University’s reputation that is impacted by these problems, rather than the USU’s. People assume we are responsible for the quality of something we don’t control.

This might give you a better un- derstanding of why, when the current agreement was about to expire, the University proposed that a joint venture should be created to manage retail and catering. The University would control 51 per cent of the joint venture, and the USU 49 per cent. Under this proposal the University would give the USU fund- ing for student activities, whether from the new Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF) or some other source.

The USU board did not accept this proposal because they did not wish to lose control of the retail and catering operations, believing this income stream to be important in ensuring the autonomy of the USU from the University. The existing agreement has now expired, and the University has ended negotiations. The door is open to re-commence negotiations if the USU wishes to change its position.

I hope they do. Their concerns about autonomy are misplaced. Consider the examples of the SRC and SUPRA. While both are dependent on University sub- sidies to provide services, neither could in anyway be viewed as lacking inde- pendence or kowtowing to University administration, as I know only too well!

Suggestions have also been circulat- ing that, unless they reconsider their position, the USU will not receive fund- ing from the SSAF monies. This is not true. But we are currently involved in a process to determine how that money should be spent.

It is important to understand that, both under the legislation and as a mat- ter of ethical management, the Univer- sity must consult with you about how you want your SSAF money spent, and we must be accountable for reporting on that spending. We take this role very seriously.

As soon as the government passed the SSAF legislation last year, the University asked students and the student organisa- tions to prioritise how the fees should be spent. Out of that consultation, your top five most important services were:

  • Orientation
  • Advocacy and information
  • Health, welfare, career support
  • Clubs and societies and other student-led activities; and
  • Facilities

In all, the University will receive about $10 million from SSAF. The main student organisations, including the SRC, have already received some of the SSAF funds to help them pay their bills, but the USU has told us they don’t need SSAF funds at present. All the student organisations, including the USU, have been invited to submit proposals for the use of SSAF money and a process is in place to manage that allocation.

Our main concern is that this funding is used to improve campus life through better services, amenities and spaces, and we hope to continue to offer the best possible student experience in part- nership with all of the student organisa- tions. Throughout all these complicated negotiations, it has been most encour- aging that the University, the USU and the other student organisations have a strongly shared commitment to support- ing your time at the University. I hope you enjoy 2012.

Michael Spence is the University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor. 

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