UTS Students’ Association accused of censorship and breaking collective autonomy

The UTSSA President and Executive have been criticised for imposing sanctions on the Education Action Group, their lack of transparency, and cuts to Vertigo’s budget.

The UTS Students’ Association (UTSSA) has been accused of political repression, censorship, and breaking collective autonomy after ‘shutting down’ the activities of the Education Action Group on Tuesday.

The UTSSA is the representative body for students at the UTS; it provides student services and runs campaigns on student issues similar to the University of Sydney SRC.

Collectives constrained by bureaucracy

On Monday, President of the UTSSA Aidan O’Rourke took action against Education Officer Ellie Woodward and the UTS Education Action Group (EAG) after an EAG Facebook post asserted that the Collective would continue postering on campus to promote rallies in defiance of University backlash.

The EAG’s Facebook post on Monday was a repost of one deleted in the lead-up to the March 24 protest against job and course cuts. O’Rourke told Honi that that “the relevant post was inconsistent with the University’s rules and would place the Association at risk,” hence Woodward was given “an option to amend the post to be consistent with the University’s rules while retaining its message or delete the post.” A follow-up post stated that the deletion was not the decision of the EAG, and the UTSSA consequently received backlash in the comments for “censorship” and “attacks on activism.”

Several sources have informed Honi that until Woodward gives an apology and guarantees she will comply with the directives of Council and the Executive, they have removed her swipe access, and required her to forfeit her keys. They have also given notice that a motion to suspend her honorarium may be presented to council, and disallowed the EAG’s access to Association spaces and expenditure.

“Essentially, Unity at UTS has an almost total monopoly and conducts the place allowing zero defiance of any university rules,” Ellie Woodward said in a statement to Honi

EAG member Holly Hayne told Honi that “Student collectives have always passed motions and taken political positions independent of student union executives. The Education Action Group voted to refuse to pay any fines levied by security or management because we demand the right to poster. This is a matter of political repression.”

O’Rourke’s sanctions on Woodward and the EAG were also in response to their withholding of attendance for a meeting held on April 1. Woodward told Honi that this was done in protest of an amendment to the Collective By-Laws, which now require office-bearers to send a confidential list of autonomous Collective members who do not wish to be included in the minutes to the Association Executive Officer (EO).

The motion, which originally required the list to be sent to the President, was passed and amended at a Council meeting on March 31. It was met with strong opposition from Collective members who were concerned about queer students being outed and the breaking of collective autonomy. O’Rourke defended the decision, stating that he was concerned with “student safety, verification of decisions and transparency.” 

The postering incident, which is being referred to as ‘#BluTackGate’ by the Education Action Group, is just one example of a series of decisions made by the UTSSA, that students have said undermines the work of the Collectives at UTS. Collective members have claimed that the ‘bureaucratic’ running of the UTSSA impedes their ability to elect their own office-bearers, access a budget, book meeting spaces, publicise events through social media, and call snap actions.

2020 Queer Officer Melissa Sara told Honi that “Activism at UTS is basically dead because we have to go through so many processes to even have a contingent to an event, to hold a banner-paint, to make posts. Every decision has to be approved by them [the Executive].” 

Sara stated that “they are constantly passing By-Laws affecting how Collectives operate, while refusing to include Collective perspectives. Labor has the numbers, so even when Collective officer-bearers ask for time to discuss motions that affect and take away collective autonomy, they refuse.”

The By-Laws of the UTSSA state that the Collectives may only be reimbursed for their expenses if there is a financial funding agreement with the University. For the second year in a row, the UTSSA Executive has failed to negotiate its renewal. O’Rourke told Honi that they are “working hard” to secure the agreement and that they received a 19% budget cut from 2019 to 2020 with further cuts flagged by UTS.

Consequently, Collectives are without a budget and any spending must be approved through the SRC or the Executive, which is using reserves to run the UTSSA. Office-bearers have to pass all decisions through the President and General Secretary for approval, with some saying they have had to wait weeks for a response.

Concerns about democracy

Students have raised concerns about the democracy of the electoral process at UTSSA. During 2020 Convenor elections, members were told mail-in ballots were viable. Yet, the Education Collective Convenor nominations were announced on the day of the election and the requirements to vote were allegedly amended only ten minutes before the meeting to state that all persons must be present physically to cast a vote. 

Moreover, Collectives at UTS do not have the power to elect their own office-bearers, but they can elect conveners, which are unofficial positions according to the SA By-Laws. Office-bearer positions for the Environment, Education and Women’s Collectives were assigned to factions in pre-election deals before voting commenced last year. Eshna Gupta didn’t know what NLS (National Labor Students) was when they elected her as Women’s Officer under their faction without consulting the Women’s Collective.

Multiple students feared that the UTSSA would respond with further punishments to the Collectives if they spoke to Honi. It has been alleged that intimidation within the UTSSA affects democratic proceedings, with men speaking over women during meetings, refusing to put them on the speaking list, and passing procedural motions to end discussions.

The SRC minutes of the UTSSA from July 2020 to March 2021 were only published on their website after Honi questioned O’Rourke about their absence. The link to Council meetings is only sent to Collective emails and the SRC, which raises questions about the transparency of the organisation. There are also concerns about the absence of democracy for students in UTS as a whole, with low voter turnout and little active engagement with campaigns.

Changes to Vertigo

Honi has been informed that the President, General Secretary and Assistant General Secretary held a meeting with the editors of UTS student magazine Vertigo before they could discuss budget cuts with Honi in February this year. They were allegedly advised on what they could and could not say, and told to provide a ‘balanced view’ when speaking about the UTSSA.

Vertigo stated that the main change to their content this year is a new quota imposed by the UTSSA wherein 35% of the magazine has to be about ‘student issues,’ which must be approved by General Secretary Erin Dalton. Vertigo asserted that this would not compromise the journalistic integrity or autonomy of the magazine. “Students had grievances about our content being out of touch,” they said.

A 2020 Vertigo editor told Honi that their experience with the UTSSA was not positive. “It was quite a struggle getting a budget approved that didn’t entirely undervalue the work we were doing and leave us with no money to make and print a good magazine. It constantly felt that certain members of the SA didn’t take Vertigo seriously since it was more of a literary and arts magazine with some cultural commentary and political pieces.”

In January this year, O’Rourke made significant cuts to Vertigo. The Vertigo team proposed an ideal budget of $75,043, a compromised one of $65,827 and a minimum of $54,935 for their 2021 expenditure. O’Rourke approved the minimum budget, allowing for the printing of only two volumes of Vertigo this year. They have since been given additional funding, with volume two being printed and the possibility of more print editions subject to a mid-year review.

Disclaimer: Claire Ollivain is a member of USyd Grassroots.