Every O-Week the University of Sydney Union is bullied into a charade. Increasingly stringent budgets tear what is fundamentally an organisation for students between providing and advertising the services that make the institution worthwhile, and increasing commodification of its members. The trade-off is pretty clear: there’s no such thing as a free breakfast.
Principal sponsorship of O-Week in 2014 was a $27 500 partnership. The Co-op Bookshop and Iglu have this year wrangled top billing rights, while Bacardi, Boost Mobile, V and Wonderground have joined up as major sponsors (last year, an $11000 privilege). In all, 41 stallholders (the SRC included) have bought their space.
These sponsor stalls, like the others, ostensibly showcase the university experience. Though they are less representative of the best of the university than many of the free stalls. Investors are the only groups with roaming and spruiking rights; the only groups with access to double width and open stall space; the only groups advertised individually; and the only groups with the most accessible and salient stall locations. This, they say, is your Union. This is your university.
Sydney University Sport and Fitness pay extra for the special display of their boat (also worth getting used to), while at $385 per week, Iglu offensively claims to provide affordable student housing on every spare inch of advertising space in the post-code. So many of the event’s affiliations feels like a disgusting rort for the super-wealthy, made worse by Iglu’s offer of a complementary Access Card and 1 weeks’ free rent as “a cool way to top up your piggy bank”—presumably a comforting thought as you haemorrhage the price of a laptop every week for rent for god only knows how long. These partnerships with the Union reflect a gross trend—an urge towards the immediately profitable over what’s best for the student body.
For while there is nothing inherently wrong with advertisement, every stall in corporate hands contributes to a false equivalence between what actually builds the incredible student experience at Sydney, and what merely funds it. It is disappointing given the incredible lengths to which the Union has gone to creating profitable spaces that also serve the needs of students—as in the case of The Refectory, Courtyard, and (depending on whom you ask) Laneway.
These endeavours reflect a willingness to stumble out of the clumsy post-VSU fiscal pubescence with students on top, but while such a significant portion of the USU’s funding comes from cash from Bacardi and V and the Commonwealth Bank and Iglu, it seems necessary to reiterate that it is still, at least by name, a union.
It would be stupid to think of the USU as malicious. Howard’s butchery of compulsory student unionism placed unprecedented pressure on universities and student groups to provide the same services, to more or less the same number of students, with a fraction of the means. O-Week’s blatant monetisation is an awful symptom of it.
That’s not to excuse the degree to which the USU has sold itself, just to explain it.
Those who run the Union undoubtedly have the best interests of the students in mind, but dollars do not ultimately constitute the student experience.
Exorbitant festival headline acts, sponsored funches and eating competitions, and every tier of non-student management are all minor sums that stack up—especially when they are used to justify the increasing infringement on student independence.
Students need respect and autonomy as much as plump coffers. The resourcefulness and passion of those who, without remuneration, build the best parts of this institution cannot be overstated, and this dignity mustn’t be short-changed for cash.
I have benefited so much from the best parts of the USU and you ought to do likewise. My fondest memories are owed to its truly student-driven infrastructure and it remains one of the only vehicles for vaguely independent student projects. But if its financial sustainability comes at the expense of our independence, it will ultimately be to no end.
There are so many projects and programs that the Union runs brilliantly to a profit without deferring to reckless affiliations and commodifying students. If the idea of a for-profit Union is not negotiable, we should all take great pains to make sure it makes money responsibly.