OWeek is one of the rare times when there is a sense of communal student identity beyond the classroom. Most of the time, students are struggling to get by and struggling to get through the semester. Beyond University friendship groups and the odd society drinks night, the campus can be a very alienating and lonely place — especially for those who have to spend two hours on the train each way to get there. Getting students involved in extracurricular groups is comparatively more difficult in the weeks beyond OWeek, as assessments pile up and schedules overflow.
Alongside the student groups, however, is an increasingly loud corporate presence. Banks, energy drinks, beer, fashion retailers, newspapers and any number of other big businesses are also vying for students’ time. With bigger budgets and more resources — free tampons, anyone? — they’re able to easily command much more attention than many of the smaller student groups. Tsingtao seem to have set up permanent residence at Hermann’s Bar, and at OWeek took up a big chunk of the quad lawns with a beer garden, chicken BBQ and a dozen brightly T-shirted young people keen to tell us why we have to drink their beer and look happy while doing it. Loud club music included.
OWeek is run by the University of Sydney Union (USU). While the USU has a board of student directors, in reality, they have relatively little power within the organisation. Most USU decisions are made by corporate management, especially those in the marketing team. Each year, candidates promise to make the USU more democratic and transparent, alongside myriad other goodies from cheaper food on campus to a room full of puppies to help students cope with exam stress. Ultimately, the overwhelming majority of these promises fall flat when confronted with the USU’s corporate imperatives.
Sometimes, the USU can be explicitly opposed to the public interest of students, as happened in 2013 when its directors voted to expel and then pursue their colleague Tom Raue for $50,000 in court costs after he exposed collusion between the university management and police during the staff strikes in that year. The USU has also taken an increasingly hostile stance towards the SRC in recent years, deciding to charge SRC collectives thousands of dollars for space at OWeek and in the past demanding that the SRC bookshop pay the USU $20,000 per year in rent.
Particularly since this debacle with Raue, which cost the USU heavily both in financial and reputational terms, the organisation has put more effort into presenting itself as a facilitator of progressive student projects. The creation of an ethnocultural space, identity-based revues, and the annual Rad Sex & Consent Week are touted as key contributions to a progressive — or even radical — student culture.
In reality the USU is, at best, opportunistically profiteering from, and at worst co-opting and stifling, a genuine, socially progressive student culture. The USU receives millions of dollars of SSAF money, alongside ACCESS card signup income and revenue from its numerous commercial operations. This takes away from the capacity of the SRC, the actual student union, to expand its essential free legal and casework services, which are understaffed and overworked. It is also vital that student organisations take an explicitly political orientation and concern themselves with social issues both on campus and beyond, rather than aspire to a lowest-common-denominator culture of multicoloured bean bags and meaningless parties.
For our generation, who have grown up after the Howard-era attacks on student unionism, in a climate where the USU is the major student organisation and events like OWeek are what passes for a student culture, it is difficult to imagine alternatives. My research into the history of student activism has given me a sense of the possibilities for a more genuinely democratic and enriching student culture.
Student demonstrations in the early 1970s were vastly different to those of today. Student activists in 2017 would be doing well to get 50 students in a contingent to attend an Aboriginal rights rally, but in the early ‘70s it was not uncommon for 2000 students to go along. And students would not only come out in greater numbers; they would also hold a formal student strike, refusing to attend classes in support of either campus demands or broader social issues. Some of the student strikes went for months.
All of this was achieved without a corporate entity like the USU. We don’t need their soulless promotions or the corporate branding they invite onto our campus — we’re capable of building a better student culture on our own. After all, it’s our SSAF money and our ACCESS contributions which make the whole thing possible. Imagine what that money could do if we were really in control of it.