With the announcement of the COVID-19 pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on 12 March, universities around the world have been plunged into mayhem. Classes have been moved online, facilities have closed, and the University of Sydney is scrambling to find its legs as it is suddenly cut off from sources of revenue. In the midst of all this, students are feeling the socio-economic disaster first and most acutely. A lack of response from university management has left student organisations to mobilise in order to fight for protections and support for students on a number of issues: from jobseeker payments and rental assistance, to academic support. Some have done this more successfully than others.
The Students’ Representative Council (SRC)
The USyd Students’ Representative Council (SRC) responded swiftly to the huge upheaval, setting up a COVID-19 response group as soon as the first case of the coronavirus was confirmed in a first year student at USyd. The SRC’s services, including access to caseworkers and lawyers, were moved online so as to maintain physical distancing measures and accessibility to students, who will now need these services more than ever. SRC President Liam Donohoe encouraged the SRC COVID-19 Response Group to come up with key demands of the government and the University.
From the beginning, the group took a strong political stance that prioritised the safety and needs of students. As a part of the SRC’s response, Donohoe wrote an article for Honi condemning the government’s prioritisation of businesses over the vulnerable in its initial $17.6 billion stimulus package. A petition titled “Contain the virus and protect the vulnerable” was created to the same point. These actions were vital in getting the message out to the student body, and getting students involved in the group and campaigns to come out of it.
The SRC has pushed mutual aid hard from the start, necessary in a time where communities have been disrupted by social isolation and thousands have lost their jobs. Notably, some of the Office Bearers of the SRC, such as the Education Officers, Women’s Officers, Ethnocultural Officers, Queer Officers and Disabilities Officers, have been involved in groups like Inner West Mutual Aid and have also been responsible for setting up mutual aid groups in other areas including South West Sydney. The SRC will be helping with storage and resource distribution for Inner West mutual aid activities, and has been organising ways to source masks, hand sanitiser, gloves, and other essential items which will be distributed by volunteers once they are collected.
The USyd Education Action Group (EAG) fought to extend the government’s welfare stimulation package, which originally had gaping omissions to student welfare, Youth Allowance, AUSStudy and ABStudy. EAG members took an active role in Twitter bombing, calling and emailing politicians in order to fight for this. Donohoe also reached out to the mainstream media and put pressure on them to report on the student element of the struggle, which has largely been overlooked by mainstream media reporting.
Since the coronavirus supplement was expanded to students, the SRC has turned to international students, who have not received the same financial support while paying exorbitant fees.The SRC has formed a WeChat mutual aid group and are designing flyers in Mandarin to promote the Inner West mutual aid group and SRC WeChat mutual aid group, aiming to distribute these to students in campus accomodation.
The National Union of Students (NUS)
For all intents and purposes, the NUS functions as an SRC on a national scale. The NUS, in contrast to the USyd SRC, were slow to get on their feet.
When the travel ban against non-citizens travelling from mainland China was announced in February, it was swiftly condemned as racist by the NUS Ethnocultural Department in its “Chinese Students are Welcome, Racism is Not” campaign. The Ethnocultural Department created Facebook profile picture frames against the initial first wave of Sinophobic vitriol.
However, the NUS did not seem to respond to the broader dilemma of student welfare as swiftly or comprehensively. It was not until students at universities like USyd mobilised that the national student body put out a press release. The NUS had not set up a working group until 20 March, after many Australian universities had begun the transition to online classes and students were beginning to feel the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic. The NUS’ first media release since universities closed, addressing the government’s COVID-19 stimulus package, echoed the demands of the USyd SRC’s petition and demands that had been published earlier that week. But it left out mention of reforms to the National Disability Insurance Scheme and increased funding to frontline medical services.
Despite their slow start, the NUS have now put together the #SaveOurStudents campaign, to demand that students, as one of the most vulnerable demographics impacted by the socio-economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, be prioritised in government actions like stimulus packages and university actions like academic leniency. In the past week, effective explainer graphics made by the NUS have generated large amounts of interaction, with one post reaching over 750, 000 people.
Like the SRC, their next step is to advocate for international students, calling for reduced fees, amended visa conditions, better health insurance coverage and a delay of census dates in universities across the country. Aside from a brief press release, the NUS has put out a survey, circulated through Facebook and WeChat, asking international students to outline their struggles and opinions about the situation. By 25 March it had already received over 1000 responses.
The University of Sydney Union (USU)
Unlike the SRC and NUS, the USU has hesitated to call for student welfare-focused responses to COVID-19.
While the USU stated in their response to the COVID-19 outbreak that their “highest concern remains the wellbeing of the entire University community,” a recent USU board meeting seemed to focus largely on their own finances rather than advocacy for students. USU President, Connor Wherrett, argued that student advocacy was largely the responsibility of the SRC, despite Wherrett himself having previously appeared in a University ad which condemned coronavirus-related racism. The Board has not formally discussed their stance on potential changes to academic regulations — such as delaying the census date or expanding special considerations — as of yet. However, they did approve signing the NUS petition calling for a range of measures to protect student welfare, including delaying the census date.
Additionally, workers do not seem to be at the forefront of the USU’s concerns, with the organisation standing down many of its casual workers and laying off several full-time workers in the past week. This comes after weeks of uncertainty, and an undertaking by Wherrett that casuals would have access to sick leave. During the meeting, the Board passed an amendment that changes the wording of the Regulations so that the Board is no longer obliged to fill student leadership positions such as Campus Activity Coordinators, PopFest Creative Directors, or Pulp Editors. This amendment, according to CEO Alexis Roitman, would allow the Board to have more discretion from a financial and staffing perspective, especially given the precarious state of the USU’s finances. This amendment fares poorly for many of the USU’s staff, who now face uncertainty in their future with the organisation.
In a blow to the student media, contributions to the USU’s own student media Pulp have also been indefinitely suspended by the USU due to a large-scale budget cut, meaning that only the current editors are still able to write and publish content.
Ultimately, the USU’s dedication to student wellbeing seems to fall short. This is especially evident from the USU Board discussion about how they would find “creative ways” for members to receive online rewards instead of having to give students cash refunds. The six $50 Woolworths vouchers that the USU will be giving away to Rewards members seems to be little more than a tokenistic show of care, and the emails to members promoting online discounts reads as a cheap marketing ploy for corporate sponsors dressed up as compassion. At the very least, these vouchers could have gone to the USU employees who will no longer receive shifts for an indefinite period of time. It is unmistakably clear where the USU’s priorities lay, and it is not with the wellbeing of students and workers.
Undoubtedly, the coming weeks and months will be incredibly difficult for us all, and much more action is required from these student organisations. Some, like the SRC, have stepped up to bat. It is essential we remember that these student organisations have a responsibility to advocate for the students they represent, whether that be on political grounds or through material relief and mutual aid. To sit back and assume that someone else will pick up the slack is simply not good enough. There are still many fights to be won, and there is no space to let up the pressure we’re putting on the government from all angles.