I write in reply to the report of the SRC Vice President published in the week 4 edition of Honi Soit regarding the National Union of Students (NUS).
The Vice President asserts that NUS is an “insignificant and useless organisation” that “spends more money on its Office-Bearers’ pay and travel than it does on campaigns”.
First of all, I’m not sure how you can call an organisation which features in print, radio, and digital media at least once a week – often upwards of 3-4 times a week – insignificant, unless you don’t believe that students’ voices on student issues should be widely publicised alongside the views of universities, government, and opposition. Personally I think that having a student voice out there on issues like student fees, education quality, accessible housing, women’s safety, and student work rights – just to name a few that NUS has spoken on in the fortnight alone – is pretty important.
Secondly, for the University of Sydney SRC to criticise an organisation for spending more money on office bearer salaries than campaigns is hypocritical and ironic, because the last time I looked at the SRC budget (as President in 2011 and General Secretary in 2010), the SRC also spent more on student Office Bearer salaries than it did on campaigns. OBs are paid in recognition of the fact that student representation, done well, is a job that limits or precludes entirely your ability to undertake other paid work. Paying OBs means that it is not just wealthy students and students who have families who can afford to support them taking on roles, but that all students have that opportunity.
Many campuses are not as well resourced as the University of Sydney, and don’t have institutional knowledge required to run successful campaigns alone. Activists on these campuses require the assistance of Office-Bearers to run campaigns, and this is why NUS OBs travel around and visit campuses. NUS could spend all the money we liked on campaigns, but without OBs traveling around to skill up activists on how to organise effectively, campaigns won’t get run. (As a side note, NUS doesn’t pay for us to stay in hotels; so if you think that travelling around constantly is glamourous and fun, I’d invite you to spend weeks on end sleeping on couches, floors, and spare mattresses and see how enjoyable you find it.)
Furthermore, the campaign budget of most departments with the exception of my own exceeds that of the travel budget, because NUS most certainly recognises the importance of campaigns. I certainly love a good rally and support direct action where it is called for, however students will only mobilize when something makes them angry enough to do so. I’m not sure that “the government has increased funding to universities but not by enough” or “the government has improved youth allowance but it’s still not good enough” is going to anger a student enough to motivate them to go to a rally. In fact I’m certain it’s not, because we tried it in 2010 and it didn’t work.
If you think that the accomplishments of NUS including: the abolition of Domestic Undergraduate Full Fee places, the lowering of the age of independence for income support from 25 to 22, the introduction of start up and relocation scholarships, the increase in the personal income test meaning students can earn $400/fortnight instead of $236/fortnight before payments get docked, the numerous campuses including Curtin and Swinburne who have secured better deals from the SSAF thanks to NUS’ assistance, the first ever survey of women’s safety on campus which is still discussed by a wide variety of organisations, and the subsequent publication of a blueprint for safety endorsed by many organisations including Universities Australia are useless and insignificant, then I really don’t know what you would consider significant.
This is without even touching upon the numerous government and sector reference groups on which I sit, and the work NUS does on a daily basis supporting campuses with a wide range of issues – I’d happily write thousands of words if there were room enough in Honi, but feel free to send any questions to email@example.com
Donherra Walmsley is the NUS President