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A happier union: USU and university work together again

Adam Chalmers talks to USU President Astha Rajvanshi about repairing the relationship with Spence

Credit: Sandra Arrell Credit: Sandra Arrell
Credit: Sandra Arrell

According to new University of Sydney Union President Astha Rajvanshi, the union has big plans for the year ahead. Throughout 2011 the USU and university were locked in a bitter battle over the Uni’s proposal to take control of all Union-run cafes and bars around campus. The University gave this up earlier in the year, letting the USU refocus on improving student life. “I’m having ongoing discussions with the Vice-Chancellor in addressing what the union does and how we’re approaching our co-curricular system and the Holme redevelopment,” Ms Rajvanshi said.

Her term is expected to be much smoother than that of her predecessor Sibella Matthews. “Our relationship [with the uni] has really turned around over the last few months – partly because we’ve responded to their concerns, and partly because how they’ve handled SSAF funding and their interactions with us…it’s a two-way street,”Ms Rajvanshi said.

With the looming threat of University takeover gone, Ms Rajvanshi thinks the biggest threat to the union is “securing funding to continue our programs and events”. Part of the university’s takeover strategy involved ending contracts worth $4.5 million in annual financial support to the uncooperative USU. This year the university helped fill that hole by allocating $3.2m in SSAF money to the USU, but is still deciding how much money to allocate it in 2013.  Could the USU survive without university funding? “We’d be self-sufficient for the next few years,” Ms Rajvanshi said. “But we’d have to be financially stringent and cut down on programs and events.”

The USU hopes that next year SSAF money will finance universal Access, meaning USU membership for all students. Students will pay one fee to both fund and join their student union. Currently, students pay a Student Services and Amenities fees to the university and part of this goes towards funding the USU. To actually join the union, students have to pay extra money for an Access card, which can be seen as paying extra for union membership benefits.

The USU is working closely with the uni for another project: integrating students’ co-curricular activities with their degree.  “This is an ongoing project we’ve been working on for the last few years,” Ms Rajvanshi says. “I’m a media student – writing for the [USU publication] Bull should count towards my degree. It’s what American universities do, and we’re doing a lot of research into how it works there.” The USU Holme building is also being redeveloped with a new lounge, food outlet, and revamped student spaces.

The project with the most potential, though, would be their Innovation Incubator. Incubators nurture start-up businesses, helping them grow from inception until opening. The USU wants to run its own incubator to help entrepreneurial students launch business ventures. The men behind it, board director Mina Nada and Honi Soit editor James Alexander, hope it will do for student businesses what the USU’s Kickstart grants do for student art projects.

As USU CEO Andrew Woodward said: “2012 is about changing the mindset from ‘surviving’ to ‘doing it better’.”

Twitter: @adam_chal

Vice Chancellor Michael Spence.

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