Meet the students vying for the highest undergraduate position at University

Out of a total of 24 candidates, only five agreed to an interview with Honi

Image: Andrew Rickert Image: Andrew Rickert

Honi sat down with some of the candidates in this year’s Senate elections for Student Fellow. Out of a total of 24 candidates, only five agreed to an interview with Honi. Although disappointing, it is not altogether unsurprising given the trend of Senate elections to be disengaged with student media and public campaigning. But we wonder: if running for a public position, why not agree to have your position scrutinised, publicly?

The five brave candidates who agreed to an interview were each quizzed on their reasons for running, policy platforms, and thoughts on controversial issues facing tertiary education. The answers differed, and generally speaking, there is no one correct response. Rather, it is up to you, as the voter, to decide whose principles and policies you choose to align yourself with.

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Alvin Chung

Bachelor of Arts (Media and Communications) / Bachelor of Laws II

Alvin Chung is a passionate candidate who hopes to get the University to do more of what separate student organisations already seem to do. With experience as a Student Representative of both the Department of Media and Communications and the School of Literature, Art, and Media, there’s no doubt that Chung has had enough access to the University to have formed opinions on what needs to change. And on this point he is clear: the University must do more to strengthen the sense of community, communication, and identity, particularly among minority groups. What is unclear, however, is just how his policies add anything new or unique to the fold.

On community, Chung hopes to use his Fellowship to institute a series of University run festivals celebrating various forms of diversity. Inspired by the USU’s international student festival, Chung would like to see USyd run a week celebrating Indigenous culture and LGBT students in order to bolster a sense of belonging. So committed is he to these festivals, in fact, that he would aim to run them two or three times a year. It was, however, unclear how sych festivals would be substantially different from existing fare, like the University’s NAIDOC week festivities or the USU’s Pride Week.

When asked why, given the thrust of his policies, Chung wouldn’t consider running for the USU in place of the Senate, he suggested to Honi that student disengagement with the USU was too high for such events to be maximally effective, noting low Access card uptake, particularly among international students. But while he is right to note that not many students are simply here to study, and so don’t see value in an Access card, USU events of this kind rarely discriminate between Access and non-Access holders. They are, generally, open to any person that happens to be walking down, say, Eastern Avenue. Moreover, it’s unclear why he could not simply propose for the USU to make their events more accessible to non-Access holders as part of a Board campaign, or, better yet, work towards free Access cards for all.

On identity, Chung wants to encourage a love of University among students, and his key policy here is to create a University anthem. While the task of composing one may not be too challenging with such a rich history of Sydney University songs to draw inspiration from, it is unclear exactly how much students would invest in such a song.

But while Chung’s policy platform may not do enough to match his ambition it was at least convincingly internalised and clear. When pressed on more general matters, though, he was more equivocal. On the prospect of deregulated or increased University fees Chung was sensitive to the struggles that might thereafter befall low socioeconomic status students, but attracted to the enhanced student experience larger revenues might bring about. He suggested that accessibility harms could be mitigated by increased scholarships, creating a redistributive mechanism whereby wealthier students subsidise better “academic staff and new infrastructure”. When asked whether this stance reflected the majority opinion among students, Chung said he wasn’t sure and would need to do a survey to work out the answer. Ultimately then, for Chung, Increased university fees, with appropriate caveats, might be an acceptable way to help realises his goals of improving community, communication, and identity.

Chung has a compelling and romantic vision of University life, one that comes across as at best ambitious and at worst naive. The bulk of his policy proposals do not appear to be novel or particular to the University, and may in fact be better suited to a USU Board campaign. His understanding of the role’s particularities and some of the hot button issues in higher education circles could also do with refinement if he hopes to realise the best cases for students. His conditional support for fee increases seems, for instance, to be coloured by his romantic vision of an improved University life and doesn’t seem likely to obtain given his sensitivity to the interests of low socioeconomic status students. Certainly, though, Chung seems to want to serve student interests faithfully.

Pavel (Pasha) Grozdov

Bachelor of Economics III

Pavel Grozdov has the sort of resume one would expect of an aspiring Senate Fellow. With a smattering of roles in both the University and the USU, Grozdov’s Facebook campaign page boasts of his “thorough understanding of the internal processes at the University of Sydney”. And between his role as Vice-President of the Sydney Arts Students Society (SASS) and administrative assistant at the student centre, it’s clear he has some considered thoughts about what the University can improve upon.

Grozdov’s platform is particularly focussed on enhancing transparency and accountability, with a broader view towards improving interactions between students and the University. Thus, his policies tend to aim at enhancing administration processes, with a desire to reform the bureaucracy’s training processes, assignment of more fine-grained responsibility for particular enquiries, and reviewing existing KPIs.

Whether such modifications are within a Senate Fellow’s remit remains to be seen, although Grozdov is right in suggesting that all processes strategic and bureaucratic ultimately trace back to the Senate, and he will be empowered to at least push for reviews and make top down recommendations should he persuade the other Senate Fellows of his position.

Beyond this, Grozdov seems committed to improving the student experience more broadly by increasing student input into decision-making. He cites the University’s consultation of students prior to the introduction of the “highly successful” Liberal Studies degree as worth replication in future instances. He promises to use the Senate to push Campus Infrastructure Services into gathering detailed feedback from students when it comes to things like campus design and planning. He seems to imply as well that such processes would also be undertaken at the faculty and department level, although the rich “qualitative insights” he expects them to yield does not seem any different from existing end of course feedback.

This commitment to students is further reflected in Grozdov’s rejection of fee deregulation, though he misunderstood the implications of fee deregulation for international students, whose fees are already determined by the deregulated animal spirits of the market, rather than the price ceiling imposed by the government. Though part of his motivation for rejecting fee deregulation was a worry that it might impact the University’s bottom line in the long run, a worry particularly tied up in his mistaken fear that international students pay larger fees.

Grozdov clearly has considered thoughts about how the University can improve outcomes for students. Whether those ideas are as novel as they seem is unclear: reviewing and developing administration policies is a constant process, no doubt undertaken by the Senate / University on countless occasions. Nonetheless, Grozdov appears passionate about increasing transparency and accountability, and so promises to be a candidate that will keep undergraduate students abreast of his activity.

Jack Gibson

Bachelor of Arts (Media and Communications) III

Jack Gibson hopes to improve student service provision, promising to bring a considered if at times comparatively conservative, outlook to the job. With a smattering of positions in USU clubs and ongoing membership in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences undergraduate committee, Gibson hopes to use the skills and inside knowledge thusly acquired to “give back to a University that has offered [him] so much.”

While Gibson is clear about what he believes the University needs to work on, he is relatively light on detail about what he’ll do to address it. On University communication, Gibson notes his own experiencing sitting in on meetings for undergraduate committees allows him to “confirm that there is a significant breakdown in communications”. While such harms are compounded by the “new degrees, placement programs, and interdisciplinary units being rolled out”, he does not offer a way that these issues can be remedied.

In aiming to improve transparency with administrative issues, Gibson canvasses some of the struggles students have noted in their interaction with administration—reporting harassment by staff, appealing grades, or transferring degrees among them. He suggests such issues can be improved by assigning more fine grained accountability, making it clearer to students “which office, department, or individual does what.” Beyond this, he seems to suggest that USyd could package its information more clearly, bemoaning that the information that is out there is “not readily available or in plain English”. Gibson did not say whether he would support providing more information in plain Mandarin, plain Bengali, plain French, or plain any other language, despite calls from international students to make provision of administrative information available in languages other than English. In the event understaffing, rather than marketing and outreach, underscores administration issues, it’s unclear how Gibson’s scarce policy explanations make a difference.

Finally, while Gibson’s efforts to improve study spaces will no doubt be met with agreement from many-a perturbed undergraduate, he did not provide more detail on how this would be achieved beyond “tweaking rules and regulations”. While the Senate no doubt makes important decisions about infrastructure development and about the purpose of existing spaces, the University is likely to “assess the feasibility of introducing new study spaces” whether Gibson is fighting for it or not.

Gibson hopes to improve conditions for international students by placing more emphasis on cross-cultural events, encouraging mingling between international and domestic students. Whether such events are part of the Senate’s remit, rather than the USU’s, is not something Gibson appears to have considered. Beyond that, he was deferential, saying he would consult with international student organisations and individuals who better understand the “specific issues being experienced”.

Gibson is a candidate with a great awareness of the frustrations experienced by many students. It is unclear, though, whether his policy platform is detailed or novel enough to address these woes. While his resume speaks to a candidate with experience with the university, he will need to do more than defer to international students and come to a more resolute position on university funding if he hopes to alleviate some of the most significant fears on the minds of USyd’s student body.

Patrick Hendy

Bachelor of Economics / Bachelor of Laws III

Patrick Hendy thinks the Senate has, for the most part, done a good job. He commends the University’s investment in infrastructure and an increase in the research budget. From his reference to these policies alone, it is clear Hendy is well informed about the Senate’s history and governance.

But when queried about what he thinks the Senate has done wrong or incorrectly, Hendy is “unsure”. He correctly identifies the restructure in late 2015 as a contentious issue. But is reluctant to express his own opinion, stating he would need access to potentially confidential information to make that judgement. While Hendy is quick to show support for the Senate, he is decidedly risk-averse to take a position on the more controversial aspects of the Senate’s governance, of which there is many.

Hendy’s reluctance to state a firm position on contentious issues is constant throughout his interview. He tentatively agrees to the Ramsay Centre’s proposal for a new degree in Western Civilisation, but only as is currently proposed by Peter Anstey, the faculty member tasked with creating a draft curriculum. Aware of the controversy with ANU, Hendy states he’d have to read the final curriculum to have a clear position on whether academic autonomy is, indeed, at risk of being breached by a conservative political agenda. On fee deregulation, Hendy correctly states it is no longer federal policy to deregulate University fees. And rather than be speculative about whether this policy could return, Hendy states, if elected, he would respond to the what federal education policy is at the time. In this regard, Hendy differs from other candidates who are decisively and principally against fee deregulation, in any iteration.

But despite his unwillingness to give dedicated answers, Hendy is a candidate who thinks pragmatically. He admits much of his role in the Senate, rather than moving motions himself, will be responding to policy prepared by other branches of the University. In lieu of bringing any strong ideological voice to the Senate, Hendy is honest about his decision-making process. Hendy states, in any decision, he will first consider the interests of the university and then undergraduate students, attempting to reach a balance between the two. Whilst abstract, this decision-making process came into play even in the interview—when queried about whether he’d leak confidential information if it was in the interest of students, Hendy says no, because he is bound to confidentiality as a Student Fellow, but also because “any leak may get to the media and … [force] the Senate to act quickly, in a way that is not in students’ interests.” The same pragmatism underlies his policy proposals, which do not require any ideological stance. He will work with the University to improve student services, and propose solutions through “process design and technology investment” (in the interview, Hendy explicitly mentions the benefits of automating certain administrative processes, an idea utilised by other universities, but one that is novel among the candidates).

Hendy admits to being a member of the federal Liberal party, the government which has, in the past, passed policy not well received by university students. Nonetheless, Hendy’s allegiance to his decision-making process remains even in the face of his political affiliation. Hendy declares he will not be bound to the party line and will take positions contrary to that of the Liberal party if it is “the best decision.” Hendy identifies that doin gso may cause him to be expelled from the party, but even when presented with this possibility, he is pragmatic: “it is [silly] for me to be cautioned for acting in my position as a Student Fellow.”

Hendy’s pragmatism and knowledge about the Senate give him an edge over the other candidates. But for those who want a candidate ready to take principled positions solely in the interests of students, Hendy may not be enough.

Abbey (Jiaqi) Shi

Bachelor of Arts / Bachelor of Laws II

Abbey Shi wants to represent international students. It is not an unusual platform; this year’s SUPRA, USU, SRC (and now Senate) elections have seen the struggles of international students finally be heard and transformed into hot election policy. But Shi is perhaps different from this year’s Senate candidates, in that she has already been in a university-wide election, and won.

Shi was elected this year as a Councillor for the 91st SRC. Shi ran with Advance, an independent international student-run political group, that, by virtue of its deal with the left wing coalition Switchroots, was viewed as the more progressive of the two international student factions (the other being Panda). Abbey’s involvement with Advance, and its relationship with Switchroots, may explain, at least in part, why her policies for Senate reflect election policies spearheaded by the undergraduate left this year. She is the only candidate who included supporting concession opal cards for international students in her top three policies, although others agreed when prompted. She was also the only candidate to highlight a pressing need to reform the special consideration system, to be more considerate of the cultural diversities and needs of international students. And she made it clear she would not back the Ramsay Centre’s quest to create a new degree in Western civilisation, calling the proposed course one that “dismisses the history of colonisation and deliver[s] eurocentrism”. Her language here harks back to words used by the Education Action Group during their protest against the Ramsay Centre earlier this year.

Bringing topical SRC election policies to the Senate is a powerful move if done correctly. Many causes advocated through the SRC necessarily need to be taken to a higher governing body for there to be any ‘real’ chance at change. And Shi is smart to position herself as the candidate ready to do that work, to work closely with undergraduate students and the SRC to bring pressing issues right to the people that have the power to fix them.

But Shi’s understanding of what the Senate is best at doing, and what the role of Student Fellow can mean for engendering change, comes into question with her third policy platform, a call to “end racial and gender discrimination on campus”. Shi provides no examples, practical or not, of how to achieve this, besides reiterating the importance of providing students a voice. Arguably the SRC, the largest representative body for undergraduate students, or SUPRA, the postgraduate equivalent, is the peak platforms through which students are given a voice.  The problem is with students, especially those of an ethnic or gender minority, not being heard. And without clear ideas or firm proposals on how to combat gender and racial discrimination, it is unclear if Shi will be the person to finally make the Senate listen.

Aside from this, Shi, like the other candidates, wants to resolve the need for a better student service centre on campus. It is unclear if Shi means a costly infrastructure change or an abstract change in work culture when she says, “a better admin building should bring a better student centre”. But her focus on this issue, along with her belief the University should provide more scholarships for international students, at least represents the way in which she understands the power of Student Fellow to be beyond advocating for positions already held in the SRC.

Shi’s policies may focus on international students, but her reason for nominating does not ignore domestic students. Both groups, Shi says, need a representative who will understand the managerial system of the University and hold their position in a way that promotes “transparent scrutiny”. Despite the emphasis on the Senate’s managerial responsibilities, none of Shi’s policies relates to Senate governance or management. She will, if elected, attend SRC meetings and be as transparent “as is legally allowed”. But Shi shows no indication to change current rules limiting Fellows from sharing information, or a desire to take a stance against governance changes that have led to a less democratic Senate. In previous years, the issue of transparency has been a combination of the Student Fellow’s unwillingness to communicate with the SRC, as well as regulations that prevent them from disclosing. While Shi will undoubtedly fix the latter, she does not have ideas on how to fix the former.