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The uncooperative Co-Op: what’s really going on?

The Co-op is meant to benefit students, but does it?

Co-op bookstore Source: Co-op

“I joined the Co-op as a fresher because it seemed like a society,” Justin, a Media and Communications student at the University of Sydney said.

“They told me that everyone at University was a member, and I didn’t want to be excluded from anything that early on.”

The Co-op acts as though it is an essential part of University life: giving students a good deal on essentials like textbooks and reinvesting profits back into student life. It claims to be run “for the benefit of members”.

This past week, a group of students from the University of Sydney, Western Sydney University, the University of Technology Sydney, the University of Melbourne, and the University of Newcastle headed to Wyong, a small town on the NSW Central Coast, with the hopes of wrestling back control of the Co-op at their Annual General Meeting (AGM). They were unsuccessful.

The Co-op justifies its influence on our campus by pledging to give back the funds generated in its stores to its student members through ‘bursaries’, ‘prizes’ and sponsorship of campus activities. The latest financial report, however, provides no evidence that this promise has been fulfilled in the past two years.

Instead the Co-op seems to use its place on campus to sign students up to life-long memberships at $25 a piece, entitling them small discounts off textbooks. As a cooperative, student members like Justin are also entitled to a vote at the AGM.

“Their membership engagement is so superficial, it begins and ends with the Co-op incessantly emailing students with offers they couldn’t care less about,” said Daniel Ergas, Co-General Secretary of the University of Sydney Students’ Representative Council and a member of the ‘Take Back Our Co-op’ group.

“I just couldn’t justify spending that much money, especially when I could clearly see what it was selling for at Angus and Robertson — brand new too,” said Katrina, after realising her required readings were almost double the price at the Co-op, as opposed to other retailers. When confronted by the lecturer, the Co-op agreed to match the reduced price and offer refunds for those who had already purchased it.

“Now I mainly use Student VIP or order my books in advance, I just don’t trust them,” she said.

The Co-op, as the name suggests, began as student co-operative run by its members. Which means that if you are a one of the 2 million students who forked out the $25 for life-long membership, you should have a say in lowering the exorbitant prices of textbooks.

An investigation from Farrago, The University of Melbourne’s student magazine, found in 2016 that this was far from the truth.

The article outlines how the Co-op has been removed from members control, largely through requiring that to be eligible as a director, a person must have a minimum of five years’ experience at a large company and/or a university degree, excluding most students from the position.

Considering the success of directors who are current students on organisations like the University of Sydney Union board, this seems like an unnecessary precondition.

Similarly, when starting to investigate the Co-op, Ergas found a refusal to interact with their membership base.

“As members of the Co-op, under the Co-operatives National Law, we had the right to inspect the Co-op’s financial reports, rules, and registry of members,” he said.

“When we emailed the Co-op, we received no reply; when we called, we were referred on to the email; when we showed up to their head office, we were told that they would call the police and sue for harassment. It was in that moment that I started to wonder what the Co-op were really up to,” he recounted.

The Co-op advertises its annual general meetings on its website, but holds them in locations that are difficult for students to reach. For example it’s most recent meeting in Wyong, a four-hour round trip from Sydney.

“They make them inconvenient and far away so as to discourage people from going,” Ergas alleged.

Co-operatives in NSW are regulated by the Office of Fair Trading which is underfunded.

The Co-op’s directors collectively pocketed $330,000 in salaries last year. Considering the Co-op’s unfettered access to campus’ around the country and the high markup on prices, it’s time to ask why students are expected to foot the bill.

But don’t worry, as their financial report assures us; “they’re paying the full-price” when they purchase the textbooks wholesale.

At the AGM, a ruling that all proxy votes registered by the student contingent were invalid prevented the majority that the students’ contingent needed to achieve their aims. This echoed the result of a similar attempt in 2004.

With the refusal to accept proxies potentially raising legal issues under the Cooperatives National Law, it is likely that the fight to ‘Take Back Our Co-op’ will continue.

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