Late one rainy night in March 1946, a group of conservative students huddled just outside a meeting of the University of Sydney’s student council. The group were hatching a plot that would see the council sever its ties with the national student union.
Among them was a charismatic philosophy student, Frank Fowler, who had earlier warned that the council would be committed to payments in sums it neither wanted nor could afford unless it took immediate action. The meeting dragged on late into the night, and many of the 18 voting council members left to get home as the weather worsened.
Around midnight, the numbers finally in their favour, the conservative students made their move. Their motion passed eight votes to nil.
More than half a century later, student councils across the country are faced with a similar quandary as the National Union of Students – an organisation that, ironically, many students have never heard of – heaves and splutters into the new year.
With declining student participation, evaporating funding and the looming threat of destructive higher education reforms in Canberra, 2015 has been a decisive 12 months for the nation’s peak student representative body: now, more than ever, student unions around the country stand precariously at a crossroads.
To understand NUS, it is necessary to return to December of 2005, when the Howard government passed a bill that would require students no longer pay mandatory union fees to their student representative bodies.
It was a move that would come to define the future of student activism across the country. Government ministers championed the bill as a triumph for civil freedoms while students decried the inevitable damage to student-run services on campus. “We think that students have a right to choose what they will spend their hard earned money on,” the then federal education minister Brendan Nelson told one ABC reporter.
Voluntary student unionism (VSU, as it became known) was a bill seen by many as nothing more than a cynical attempt to cut off student activism at the source. Over the next decade, VSU laid bare the new rules of student-run services: income would not be guaranteed and internal politics would become king. Either way, students lost out.
At the time of Howard’s campaign, NUS, along with many other student bodies, mustered their resources to fight the change, but by Christmas the Higher Education Support Amendment Bill, had become law. The days when student bodies could collect their own fees to fund a vibrant campus culture had come to an end.
A compromise came in the form of the Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF) Bill, introduced by the Rudd government in late 2011. The Student Services Amenities Fee – a capped, but deferrable, fee charged to undergraduate students each semester and distributed at the discretion of the university – was introduced. Now, each summer, student representatives at the University of Sydney meet with university bureaucrats for a difficult bargaining process to secure a slice of the SSAF pie.
Accordingly, student organisations were made to adapt. Whittling their budgets and providing the same services with smaller and more politicised funding ultimately damaged the integrity of many of these services. But NUS, buckled by bureaucracy and riven by bitter factionalism, never did quite adapt. Its funding model, mired in a pre-VSU era, echoes the jumbled aspirations of the students who govern it.
After 2005, viability relied on the financial stability of its constituent member unions, each with wildly varying needs and resources. As a result of VSU, some student unions and guilds around the country were forced to restructure, while others split or were absorbed elsewhere. Some folded entirely, particularly outside of the capital cities where resources were scarce and students politically disengaged.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that issues with NUS’ finances are not isolated or superficial; they point to much deeper political and structural problems within the organisation.
Of particular concern is the inconsistent and politicised funding model of student union affiliation fees (sums which are required of participating student unions to remain affiliated with NUS each year). In 2015, only 20 of the 39 student unions paid affiliation fees, although NUS doesn’t release this information publicly, nor does it reveal how much union each pays – it remains financially opaque to its members who don’t attend its annual national conference.
A member of the national executive told Honi the affiliation fee model was akin to universal healthcare or progressive taxation. “You pay as much as you can, but it’s a net benefit.” But last year, the organisation’s increasingly troubled books led to the commissioning of a financial audit – the first of such scale – by Melbourne-based firm, TLConsult.
The resulting report painted a damning picture. It confirmed more than anything many long-held criticisms by those already disenchanted with the organisation. Specifically, the report identified a lack of resources, year-to-year continuity and accountability mechanisms as principally to blame for the NUS’ financial woes, as well as the bitter culture of factionalism. Its key recommendations – appointing an interim CEO, implementing a new governance structure and improving finance protocols – were not well received in some student circles.
NUS had to make significant changes to adapt to the post-VSU world, the report urged, or it risked facing collapse. “Nostalgia is one of the significant emotions fuelling NUS politics, founded on a reality anchored prior to the mid ‘90s,” the report read.
More than anything, the TLConsult report highlighted a fundamental ideological divide in NUS’ future between the quasi-corporate model of a company-structured service provider, and the beating heart of student activism nationally – a lurch towards one would invariably come at the expense of the other. “Many students think the only way to get change is to stand on the street with placards,” TLConsult’s Liz Kelly told Honi, describing what she saw to be the “radical element” of the organisation.
Although ideal for the effective management of a profit-driven body, the “key performance indicators and appraisal targets” that the report recommended were broadly incompatible with the spirit and purpose of NUS.
Not all are willing to settle for nostalgia, however. NUS, as an organisation, is increasingly seen by student unions as impotent, incompetent and opaque. This year, the University of Sydney voted to reduce affiliation fees by $19,000, to $63,000. It is a decision outgoing President Kyol Blakeney backs to the hilt.
“NUS lives up to the Labor agenda more than the student agenda.” he told Honi.
Blakeney is not isolated in his concerns. Of the 39 universities affiliated with NUS, only 20 pay affiliation fees. By the end of the 2014-15 financial year, NUS had run itself into the ground financially with accumulated losses of over $350,000 since 2012. Questions have equally been raised about NUS’ spending, particularly the extravagant travel expenses of national office bearers.
All told, 2016 is set to be a decisive year for the embattled NUS. Despite recent deficits, talk has circulated of a comfortable surplus in the upcoming budget, owing at least in part to some reining in of finances. Several student union presidents and delegates Honi spoke to echoed this sentiment, praising NUS General-Secretary, Tom Nock, on his fiscal discipline.
According to the TLConsult audit, NUS will need to explore “additional revenue streams beyond affiliation fees” to have any chance of financial planning beyond the short term. Despite its limitations, the auditors’ report served as the tipping point for the future of NUS. It predicted that the organisation, based on its model at the time, had only a year left.
A year on from the audit, at the organisation’s 2015 National Conference, all eyes are on the outgoing executive to see what changes they have made to salvage Australia’s national student union.
Australian students without a doubt need a strong voice to represent their interests on a national stage – a better NUS in some form has an important place in student life. But as it stands, the organisation is caught between a rock and a hard place. Either it compromises its values to be the effective, semi-corporate enterprise that the audit envisions, or it continues its downward spiral with the unsustainable funding and endemic factionalism that alienates most of its constituency. Something needs to change to ensure its survival.