The Australian National University Students’ Association (ANUSA) has voted to reaccredit to the National Union of Students (NUS), but only if the NUS meets certain key performance indicators.
In its Tuesday night council meeting, ANUSA resolved to restart fee payments—to the tune of $10,000—conditional on “exit KPIs”. These requirements concern the financial and governance structure of the organisation, which has been plagued by accusations of mismanagement, factionalism and ineffectiveness.
And in a bid to force organisational reform of the peak student body, ANUSA is calling on eight other NUS members to impose KPIs as well—though it’s questionable whether these members actually support the proposal.
ANUSA has not paid accreditation fees for the last two years, meaning it has received no voting rights at the NUS’ governance convention, known as National Conference (NatCon).
There are 13 KPIs, which among other things require the NUS to conduct annual independent audits of its finances, publish the minutes of all National Executive meetings, and take reasonable steps to minimise violence at its protests.
ANUSA President Eleanor Kay told Honi most of the KPIs “are the basic governance requirements of any not-for-profit organisation.”
The KPIs also demand the appointment of a non-factional returning officer for National Executive elections—which was a sticking point the last time ANUSA attempted reaccreditation.
In 2017, under a similar conditional accreditation model, ANUSA withdrew its promised $5000 in membership fees after the NUS failed to guarantee an impartial returning officer.
Unlike in 2017, ANUSA is building a coalition of other NUS members who will also make their accreditation subject to the 13 KPIs. But questions remain as to which student unions actually back the plan.
ANUSA has published a letter addressed to NUS President Mark Pace and General Secretary Jacob Cripps, which outlines its conditional accreditation model and the 13 KPIs. This letter purports to be signed by the presidents of eight NUS member organisations, each of them an on-campus student union. They include the USyd SRC, the University of Melbourne Students’ Union (UMSU) and the Newcastle University Students’ Association (NUSA).
According to the letter, “Should the NUS fail any exit KPI then all our organisations will refuse to pay accreditation fees in 2018.”
Between them, the eight organisations contribute $240,000 in accreditation. That’s 40 per cent of the NUS’ annual fee intake.
But several of the named organisations appear to not actually support the proposal.
USyd SRC President Imogen Grant told Honi she was not aware that she had been “made a signatory of the letter, and would never have signed without the support of Council.
“We support accrediting unconditionally,” she said.
Pace, who at the time of writing had not seen the letter, said “only a minority of the organisations” had actually signed.
However, the KPI model is not entirely without support. Kay told Honi “several other campuses have passed the KPIs” and NUSA President Christy Mullen said she would sign the letter.
But no matter the number of signatories, Pace said he would try his hardest to meet ANUSA’s requirements. As a “democratic institution, [the NUS] needs to reflect the approach of students”, he said.
Even if only ANUSA withheld fees, Pace conceded $10,000 would mean a lot to the NUS’ bottom line: “We spend most of our funding on campaigns. $10,000 lost is money that could be spent on our education campaign.”
But despite such large incentives, Howard Maclean, an ANU independent and former ANUSA councillor, was sceptical whether conditional accreditation could bring about reform. “Measures like this have been ongoing for 30 years”, he said, noting that nothing short of “comprehensive structural and constitutional reform” could repair the organisation’s failings. He also pointed out that most of the KPIs ask the NUS to do what it’s already obliged to under law or its internal rules.
The NUS’ failings have been widely reported in recent years. In 2014, a structural audit found the organisation close to financial collapse, and that it needed to find alternative revenue sources in a world where student unionism was no longer compulsory. The audit also condemned the NUS’ culture of factionalism, which sees different national stupol groupings vying for control of a body that has traditionally been Labor-aligned. At the same time, National Executive members have been accused of neglecting their duties, instead treating their well-remunerated portfolios as political career stepping stones.
Whether or not reform is need, some voices oppose the KPI model outright. Grant noted that withholding fees would only hasten the NUS’ demise. “We prefer students to have a peak representative body rather than not having one, and the demise of NUS does not guarantee that something better will form,” she said.
For his part, Pace was optimistic that the NUS was improving, with or without conditional accreditation. In 2016-17, the NUS returned a budget surplus and engaged in high-profile national campaigns, particularly as part of the same-sex marriage ‘yes’ campaign. Pace noted that many of the KPIs, particularly on organisational accountability, were already being met, like the requirement that minutes be published online. He also pointed out the NUS had organised yesterday’s National Day of Action against education cuts.
In principle at least, ANUSA agrees the NUS has a positive role to play: “It is fundamentally important that students have a national coordinating voice to speak up for our rights,” said Kay.