A more perfect Union

An open letter from the Honi Soit editorial team.

The USU: A Briefing Paper

What is the USU?

The University of Sydney Union (USU) is a $22 million operation.

The USU runs a variety of programs on campus, including O-Week, the Clubs and Societies program, and the food outlets in Manning House and the Wentworth Building.

In 2013 $3.1 million of USyd’s compulsory Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF) revenue was given to the Union.
This means that each USyd student paid $83 to the Union per semester last year.

Students also fund the USU via the purchase of ACCESS cards. This provides membership to the Union and the entire breadth of
its services.

What is the Board of Directors?

The USU’s Board of Directors holds control of the Union and its programs.

It is composed of 11 elected student directors, professional CEO Andrew Woodward, and
two Senate-appointed directors.

The CEO, in cooperation with the Board, appoints the Union’s heads of departments and conducts its day-to-day operations.
Each May, the USyd student body elects a new crop of student directors.

Each June, the members of the Board elect their Executive, which is made up of the President, Vice-President, Honorary Secretary, and Honorary Treasurer.

These are some of the highest positions of student political office at Sydney University.

Who are the Senate-appointed directors?

Senate-appointed directors hold the same powers as their elected counterparts, including the right to vote in Executive elections.
They tend not to be University of Sydney students, and are not elected by the student body.

They are often previous Board directors, or hold other positions of influence within the University.

There are no official pre-requisites for the positions, nor official selection processes. Appointments to the position of Senate-appointed director must simply be approved by the University Senate.

In the past, candidates for the position of Senate-appointed director have often been shortlisted and selected by other members of the Board before being presented to the Senate for approval. The Senate has, however, occasionally recommended candidates for
the position to the Union Board.


The Democratic Deficit

The improper place of non-students in student democracy

At the University of Sydney, opportunities for genuine student representation and leadership are limited. In one of the few powerful student political organisations of this university, students should have an exclusive say in those who lead them.

The University of Sydney Union Board, and especially its Executive, has enormous sway over the direction of the largest student organization on campus. It controls a $22 million budget, and determines the staffing of the Union. It makes decisions about its funding priorities, events, programs and politics. It decides the nature and extent of the role the union can play in student life.

Students must make these decisions. It is their organisation, and it exists to serve them. But, currently, two unelected, Senate-appointed directors are wielding disproportionate influence over the direction of the USU.

Senate-appointed directors have the capacity to vote in USU Executive elections and, in the last Presidential election, Emma McDonald did so.

Although they only fill two of the 13 seats at the Board’s table, the appointed directors still play a significant role come executive election time. In 2012, the presidential election was decided by one vote. Last year, it was decided by two. The implication of these narrow margins is obvious: the appointed directors could have cast votes that would have changed the outcome of either election, and, by extension, the direction of the Union at large.

The Senate-appointed representatives are often incredibly capable and experienced people. This newspaper does not begrudge their success. We merely question whether they should have the power to shape a student organisation.

An accountability deficit

In May this year, McDonald will become the longest-serving current Board Director. She was chosen in early 2012, by a group of directors who have since been replaced by a new generation of elected representatives. By May this year, none of the students who consented to furnishing her with the same powers that they had been democratically granted will remain on the Board. It is very possible that McDonald will vote in the executive election of student directors who never had the opportunity to accept her place on the Board.

This, to us, hints at the existence of a democratic gap.

Senate-appointed directors are not accountable to the student body and ordinary USU members to the same extent that their elected, student colleagues are. The appointed directors are not directly elected by students, are very rarely students themselves, and are chosen by the Board and the Senate in a process not transparent to the student population.

Where the term of elected directors ends after two years, there exists no constitutional limit on the term of appointed directors. They routinely sit on Board for double the time – and more – of the elected directors who put them there.

And, to aggravate the problem further, there is limited ability for the elected directors – including those who had no say in the original appointment – to remove the unelected directors from the Board. They may only be removed from board where they have committed a serious violation of the Constitution, USU Regulations or Duty Statements, and a two-third majority of the Board votes to remove them. Bluntly, this is just too high a bar for the removal of a nonelected representative.

What needs to change

We recognize that candidates for the upcoming USU executive election are presented with a prisoner’s dilemma. They may believe in the value of student democracy and the right of student representatives to choose their own executive. But, in acting according to that principle, they risk their chance of winning an executive position. While they may abstain from courting the votes of the appointed directors, their competitors may not be so ethical. Without the guarantee that no one will seek the vote of the appointed directors, everyone does.

That needs to change. Below we are publishing a document with two conditions on it. Board directors: if you agree that students should run their own Union, that the votes of unelected and unaccountable non-student directors should not decide who leads the student union, please sign your name to it. Get in contact with us and we will provide you with a copy of it. We’ll bring it to your house with a Big Mac if it means you’ll sign it.

The USU should be a democratic student organisation. This, we hope, moves us closer to that ideal.

Eds’ note: Astha Rajvanshi is not involved in USU coverage due to her role as the Union’s Immediate Past President.