“Shots in solidarity @nus_australia #NUSprezsummit #shots #unionism#solidarity […] #drink #drank #drunk #studentunity#studentunity5eva #newstudentunityrecruits #studentunityisNUS”.
– Instagram tags from an NUS delegate
On Wednesday, the National Union of Students (NUS) held its annual Presidents’ Summit at Sydney University and, as expected, my social media feed is littered with drunken frivolity.
When it comes to NUS, such drunken displays aren’t new. This time, however, I’m more irritated than amused as I’m reminded that just last December, these same giddy, self-perpetuating hacks passed motions to cut the funding of three departments representing some of Australia’s most disadvantaged students: National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) Officer, National International Students’ (IS) Officer and National Disabilities Officer.
The cuts were made following revelations that the organisation had actually run significant budget deficits in past years, despite assurances to the contrary from previous General Secretaries. These misrepresentations, revealed in a structural audit, have been attributed to a former senior staff member. Their discovery left NUS desperately scrambling to cut costs.
While this budget crisis may be real, it is unclear why portfolios representing marginalised groups bore the brunt of the cuts. I suspect that these programs were chosen because it was politically convenient to cut them, and perhaps more concerningly, because the representatives voting were apathetic towards the plight of Australia’s most marginalised students.
Cuts to the ATSI department exacerbate the already woeful situation for Indigenous education locally and nationally. According to Blacademy, a new national collective of Indigenous students, issues facing Indigenous include “the effective end of the long-standing Indigenous Tutorial Assistance Scheme, widespread racism and settler colonialism in proposed and implemented curriculums, and the restructuring of Indigenous accommodation options”. Likewise, international students, who make up over 600,000 students nationally and spend over $17 billion a year, continue to be treated as inferior and face grossly underpaid and unfair work conditions, a lack of welfare and language support, increased transport costs, and displacement and community violence. Similarly, students with disabilities often face social exclusion, and drop out of university due to the lack of support services, missed class time, and bullying and harassment.
It seems highly ironic that NUS, the peak body lobbying against fee deregulation, is stripping the funding of departments that bear the most damning effects of such a proposal.
Then there is the expectation that students who take up the positions of office bearers should do so voluntarily, and out of a charitable desire to help their communities. Let’s be very clear about what this actually is: exploitation and free labour. The honorariums of those in top executive positions are left untouched, while those representing the most vulnerable are now expected to devote all of their energy to advocacy without any compensation. Not only does this expectation reek of entitlement (particularly from those who can so often afford to support themselves through mummy and daddy), it also completely overlooks the practical barriers of time and money that prevent students from low-SES backgrounds from working for free.
Here’s the worst part of the reforms: if students from these groups don’t commit to taking up office bearer positions, then there are no checks and balances left to ensure that their autonomy is maintained. Most executive members from NUS argue that under the current structure, positions like ATSI and IS were ineffective due to their measly $1,500 campaign budgets. Under the new model, they will be able to elect representatives on a panel that regularly consults with NUS executive members. Not only does this appear to be paternalistic and compromises the agency and autonomy of such groups, there are currently no timelines, or any concrete plans, about implementation.
And so, the card-carrying members of political factions come together at NUS Presidents’ Summit once again to pat themselves on the back for having serious discussions about the future of Australia’s higher education, all the while being complicit in the marginalisation of those who never really had their voices heard. #shots in solidarity, everyone.
Ed’s Note: The photo featured in this article is not the one that was attached to the instagram post