The University of Sydney Union’s (USU) recent decision to offer free ACCESS membership is calculated to improve student experience—a priority also shared by University administration in light of poor results in national student experience rankings. The USU, helped by a million-dollar deal with the University, will make Clubs and Societies membership at the start of 2019, with an optional paid membership for students wanting to receive discounts at campus food outlets. Making ACCESS free is a major step in improving the accessibility of student unionism at the University, and has removed a significant financial barrier to participating in USU activities and initiatives.
Although free ACCESS membership goes some way to making the USU more inclusive, the organisation could do far more to engage with and deliver action for students. There are many issues students face, which can never be resolved by simply letting students join societies for free.
Since the introduction of Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) in 2006, student unionism has been on a steady and seemingly irreversible decline. This decline is a problem because student unions, apart from providing valuable services to their members, have historically been major contributors to student activist movements around Australia. Student unionism has been instrumental in affecting major social progress, often leading protest movements and facilitating radical activism.
VSU makes it dangerous for student unions to be actively political. When dependent on student services and amenities fees allocated by universities, and in the USU’s case, their own corporate activities, it can be tempting for student unions to depoliticise and appease those with financial power to avoid controversy. For example, in 2013 the USU Board opposed a number of measures to support staff strikes, concerned that the strikes might affect commercial operations and their bottom line. That happened again in 2017, when the USU refused to shut down its commercial operations alongside further staff strikes. Last year, the USU took no stance on the proposed Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation because multiple Board Directors claimed not to have educated themselves on the issue, despite concerns that it constitutes a colonialist, partisan threat to academic independence on campus. With examples like this in mind, it’s clear that VSU doesn’t just make student unions smaller—it weakens them and undermines their history of activism.
Some people might claim that weakening activism at university is no bad thing. Right-wing candidates in student elections have insisted that activism is futile, unwanted by students, and a distraction from providing tangible services. A common refrain of the campus right, looking to posture as sensible, apolitical, and student-focused, is that they will prioritise services for students over activism. During last year’s Students’ Representative Council (SRC) election, centre-right group Shake Up regularly claimed to want to start spending student money on students, saying they would prioritise student services. Liberal Board Director Jacob Masina explained to Honi last year that he didn’t believe the Ramsay Centre was relevant to the USU’s work, suggesting the Union ought to focus solely on student experience. Board Director Lachlan Finch, who ran as an Independent but is affiliated with the Liberals, was quoted in his candidate Honi interview as tepidly saying, “I don’t think politics has a place in making the best decisions for the Board.”
The framing of student services as in competition with political activism is deeply bizarre. It might be easy to proclaim that activism is a less effective use of resources than fun runs, textbook subsidies, faster WiFi and a “#MeToo movement at USYD” (whatever that means), but doing so necessarily fails to understand the ways in which injustices in our society affect students’ ability to access services. Discrimination, abuse, systemic marginalisation, and disadvantage all create barriers to accessing services and are magnified when student unions like the SRC and especially the USU fail to take strong stances on the challenges facing marginalised students.
Someone who is being underpaid at work certainly benefits from caseworkers, but fighting for stronger unions, better pay, and more accountability for bosses helps to stop them being underpaid in the first place. Someone who faces discrimination based on their identity or ability may appreciate the SRC Legal Service, but additionally would benefit from activism fighting stigma and bigotry. USU Clubs and Societies are a great way to get involved in university, but without demanding better housing affordability and ensuring tertiary education is affordable, regional and low-SES students have a difficult time ever accessing them. Therapy dogs are pretty cute, but it’s hard to see how they could have a tangible benefit on students’ mental health when we’re faced with material assaults on our welfare and living standards. Constantly facing issues like discrimination and exploitation at work, systemic racist violence, sexual harassment and abuse, vicious anti-LGBT+ sentiment, ableism, and the looming threat of climate disaster has a tendency to make you miserable. Student services can mitigate these issues to some extent, but to truly address them in meaningful ways, we need activism.
Student activism isn’t futile. Looking at the University of Sydney Wom*n’s Collective, we can observe how dedicated and radical activism against sexual assault at university led to the productive Red Zone report and the End Rape on Campus movement. The Collective’s work created tangible benefits and change for women on campus, which no amount of palatable corporate apologism could have created. In 2014 students organised en masse against the fee deregulation proposed in the federal budget, sending a powerful message to the government about the need for access to tertiary education. The USyd Disabilities Collective and Caregivers Network protested last year against the inaccessibility of public transport, something which directly affects the ability of students with disabilities to access a university education. These achievements illustrate the potential for activism to focus effectively on student wellbeing, provide a voice for marginalised students, and remove barriers to accessing tertiary education.
It is vital for student unions to take on activism to change the oppressive systems which materially harm students. Their role as providers of student services is enriched—not diminished—by improving student wellbeing on a systemic scale. Challenging political oppression, unjust discrimination, and exclusion will always be valuable uses of union resources. In real terms, despite positive progress by the USU towards better access to its services, a neoliberal and apolitical union operating in the shadow of VSU will never be truly impactful in improving the lives of all students.