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Prudence Wilkins-Wheat: ‘I want to reinvent the USU, not just rebuild it’

The new USU President talks staff cuts and surpluses, C&S funding, left-wing representation, and the future of the organisation.

After officially entering her role as the newest USU President, Prudence Wilkins-Wheat sits down with Honi editors Deaundre Espejo and Marlow Hurst.

Marlow Hurst: Why did you decide to run for USU President?

Prudence Wilkins-Wheat: I didn’t actually think I was gonna run at first. But then you start to think about all the things you want to change. That inspires you to try and change them. That was really a driving factor of my nomination.

COVID-19 really made the USU rethink what it means to be the heart of uni life. In a new decade with a new generation of students, many of whom won’t remember pre-COVID campus life, this really was an opportunity. 

We also have a new CEO, a new Vice-Chancellor, a new senate-appointed director, a new online-physical teaching model, a new Manning Party, so 2021 felt like a time to destabilise. But I didn’t really want to go for that philosophy of rebuilding the USU. I want to reinvent and reimagine the USU, not just rebuild it. 

On the future of the USU

MH: So you’re interested in reinventing the USU rather than rebuilding. What, then, is your vision for your USU term?

PWW: I really want to be ambitious about a new USU. One that’s more student centric, more relevant in our programmes, more valuable in our membership and more visible as an organisation.

I think, historically [the USU] has been perceived as a bit goofy, which is fair, and it has received very reasonable criticism. I really want to bring some respect back to the USU. Or at least to bring hope.

A lot of it is about communication. Working with different stakeholders like the SRC. I’ve already met with the SRC’s President Swapnik [Sanagavarapu] and we’ve shared some really important ideas around our Food Hub, and consolidating student life to create a central place for students to access events. 

I want to talk to other unions as well, including from other countries, about how they’re dealing with COVID to see how we can comprehensively improve or expand our online presence. I want to work with alumni, and look at having regular speakers on campus which would be really cool. I want to make sure that I am responsive to what students care about, whether it’s 13 week semesters or other important education initiatives.

MH: With New South Wales currently locked down for the foreseeable future, the USU has closed outlets and the University is preparing for online learning. How has the recent COVID outbreak affected the USU’s finances? Have the USU’s plans for the year been affected?

PWW: The best thing to say is that we’re reforecasting at the moment. I can’t give you any precise information. Obviously, like every organisation, we will be affected. 

COVID has impacted our immediate plans, but we can just pivot on a lot of these things. We’re looking to hybridise a lot of our events and really bolster our online community. We were looking at regular parties, live music on campus and those regular events. But some of that, of course, has to be a bit delayed because of the lockdown. 

At the moment, Food Hub is really busy — we have roughly 100 students a day. We also ordered 250 hampers for the food bank. We’re doing a lot of good work with USU2U, a [food] delivery service run by the USU for people in student accommodation. You can order and they’ll get it delivered to you in 48 hours. 

We’re really looking creatively at how to deal with the crisis so there’s still a lot going on. We don’t want to make people feel isolated or alienated.

Deaundre Espejo: In a similar vein, USU staff have been told to work from home and some have been told to use their annual leave. What is the current situation with staffing and are cuts on the table this time around?

PWW: No. We’re not looking at it as an option. And I know the entire team agrees that we really want to just avoid that situation altogether.

DE: You mentioned hybridising programmes as one of your key strategies for COVID. With continued border closures, a shift towards online learning, and ongoing austerity measures by University management leading to a decline in campus life, how do you think that the USU can stay relevant as the university continues to transform? 

PWW: I think that we really want to be modern. We want to be on the cusp of what is relevant and important to students. 

We’ll be engaging [students] with regular online events. That’s something that I’ve been proposing over the last two weeks — hopefully having some sort of regular online events whether it’s trivia, film screenings, collaborations with clubs. Just to have a special place where all kinds of students know there’s a community. 

We’re also going to support the people on the ground, like our club presidents who are really doing some great events. Platforming them and making sure that people know that those communities exist is critical. 

On clubs and societies

MH: In February, the USU announced a new grants-based funding model for clubs and societies. These changes have been criticised for providing less funding overall. What are your opinions on the new model and can we expect a change? 

PWW: At the moment we’re not looking to repeal it. The general idea of the grant funding model was that it was to support small to medium sized clubs by offering them upfront budgets that, on average, exceed the amount that these clubs may have historically ever claimed. 

It was really key to us to be equitable in our resource allocation. To make sure that even though a club may not be running events that are turning a profit, they aren’t any less valuable. They should be able to run those and be supported. 

Perhaps we’re looking to improve it depending on the feedback we’ve already been asking for from our members through C&S surveys. I know that our new Board Directors Cole [Scott-Curwood], Telita [Goile] and David [Zhu] have already expressed interest in reviewing the funding model, and hopefully based on this feedback that we get, we can start looking to try and improve it.

I hope to create some continuity though, I don’t think we can keep jerking people back and forth with the model. So for now we are going to stay on the grants model. 

MH: So would you say a hybrid model between events-based and grants-based funding is a possibility in the future? 

PWW: I’m not going to speak for staff, because [the hybrid funding model] was something they brought forward. But I would listen to their proposals and feedback before imposing what I think. If I didn’t, the decision would come from a place of ignorance. 

MH: Another flashpoint when it comes to C&S was the Catholic Society’s ableist stunt earlier this year, which resulted in a suspension pending sensitivity training. What are your thoughts on the way this matter was handled by the USU? 

PWW: I think it was a really informed decision, since we had regular meetings with the SRC’s Disability Officers and CathSoc to get a sense of the situation. While it would be preferable if we could have gotten to it quicker, it was important to do our due research. 

I’m pretty happy with the way it worked out. I’m still in ongoing communication with the Disability Officers to discuss what disability awareness training would be preferred. Like I said, always consulting. 

MH: Do you have any plans to provide sexual assault and harassment training to the executives of clubs and societies, or improve the USU’s handling of this issue?

PWW: This was a very important topic of discussion this year. We reviewed and updated our sexual harassment policy, which is currently on our website. We’re currently looking at high-risk activities like camps, and looking to prepare C&S executives through Responding With Compassion training, Mental Health First Aid, and other forms of training. I’m also excited to work with Telita, the Wom*n’s Portfolio holder, as well as the SRC Women’s Officers to think about broader changes as well.

On staff reductions, surpluses, and transparency issues

DE: Last year’s USU Board was faced with the challenging task of navigating COVID-19. What are your biggest takeaways from last year’s term? 

PWW: Without sounding one-note, I think the importance of communication, consultation, student and staff culture, and building trust with stakeholders stand out to me. We got a lot of criticism last year, so trying to mitigate situations that will invite criticism is something that I aim to do. 

DE: Well let’s unpack that criticism. Last year, the USU made a decision to reduce staff hours, with some staff losing work altogether. There’s been a lot of speculation as to your role in this decision. Did you vote against the cuts during your term? 

PWW: I’m not able to speak to everything I did in the confidential aspect of that decision. I prefer to just look at what I will do in the future, which is to fight against any potential staff reductions. By “fight,” I mean preventing the USU from being put in a position that they would ever consider staff reductions again.

DE: The USU also faced criticism when it was revealed it had a surplus of $786,399 last year. Why did this surplus exist? Couldn’t this have been spent to protect jobs? 

PWW: At the time we made the decision [to reduce staff hours], the projections were showing a deficit, and we hadn’t yet confirmed JobKeeper. We established the COVID-19 recovery committee to review our situation and our projections. We also established the situation of all the staff in case anyone needed an exemption to a capacity reduction, for example, if they had children or weren’t able to pay rent. 

From what I understand, the surplus was caused by the $4 million we got from JobKeeper, and a $75,000 jobs stimulus package. We also got an unexpected venue hire, which was completely out of sight and really helped us. That led to the surprising surplus, but at the time that decision was made, it hadn’t registered with the Board as a possibility.

MH: The issue of transparency is another thing which has plagued the USU for a long time. Despite the USU’s new transparency policy, we’ve seen great delays in the uploading of meeting minutes and reports, and continued use of in-camera discussions. How are you going to ensure that the USU follows through on its own policy? 

PWW: I think that the mishaps around minutes and such largely derive from the fact that we didn’t have an Assistant Board Secretary for a long time. This position has since been filled by Oliver Harding.

I was part of the group who wrote the transparency policy, so I’m very much passionate about following through. I’ve set up really important accountability structures —  I’ve got Ruby and the other Directors holding me to account, for example, making sure that if I were to decide to move something to confidentials or go in-camera, that there is an important rationale. 

I especially want to teach the first year board directors that it is an important responsibility to be transparent and to hold me to account. Of course, it’s also important for Honi Soit and Pulp to be criticising us when we fail to be transparent. It’s all of those accountability measures that really make a policy functional.

On the USU’s new leadership team

MH: This year saw the election of Isla Mowbray, Nicholas Comino, Cole Scott-Curwood, Telita Goile, David Zhu, and Du Du to the Board. What do you think of the new directors?

PWW: I think the new Board Directors are great. They have so much enthusiasm, and a lot of them are incredibly experienced — like Cole who’s the President of the Engineering Society, and Isla who’s the Vice President of the Dramatic Society. These are really important demographics we should be listening to, and these directors bring really important institutional knowledge.

MH: During the election of the USU Executive, you said you wanted to dismantle the idea of the Executive as a sort of supreme governing body. How are you planning on engaging those first year, incoming board directors in decision-making?

PWW: Part of why I want to change the culture with the first year board directors is that they’re very clever and they have a lot of bright ideas. So I plan to let them take charge and create working parties around initiatives they care about. I just really want to be able to say ‘I trust you in this, I want you to go off and write a proposal for it and come back to me.’ 

It’s about giving them the background and confidence to take up their own projects. I want to give them a really thorough induction, and have regular meetings without being too prescriptive. It’s also about building a trusting relationship so that they can lean on me and treat me as a mentor, so that they’re in the best position to achieve whatever they want to achieve. 

MH: Your new executive team consists of Ruby Lotz (Vice-President), Benjamin Hines (Honorary Treasurer), and Kailin (Vikki) Qin (Honorary Secretary). What strengths would you say your executive team possesses? 

PWW: I don’t think we’re the status quo. We don’t accept anything as ‘oh, that’s just the way things are done.’ We like to challenge and to try new things. We’re very experimental. 

I mean, the Manning Party really happened because of all of us agitating to get it off the ground. We made a working party around it, and we just did it. And I think that philosophy is really important going ahead for the USU.

MH: We all know that the executive election is a very political process of wheeling and dealing. Would you say that the way executive roles were assigned were purely political; a matter of who wanted what and who could get it? Or would you say that the executive roles were informed by the unique skills and perspectives of those board directors?

PWW: I can’t speak for anyone in terms of how they voted or why they nominated. But I definitely think it was important for us to have them in those positions, and not because a preference deal was made behind closed doors. None of that happened. It was just purely because that person has good experience in those particular areas. That was really an important aspect of our election. 

MH: During the executive election, you also stressed that no second-year board director would be left out of this executive, and that a role would be created for Belinda Thomas. Do you intend to follow through with that?

PWW: It’s been discussed informally, though nothing has been prepared or is in the works at the moment. It could be in the future. We would only create a role if there were one to create — if there is a gap in the USU or if there was some sort of value to be added in that role — rather than just to appease some person. But the idea is that hopefully, we can give responsibilities to every person on board, so they feel quite active instead of disengaging. 

On left-wing engagement with the USU

DE: The general distinction between the USU and the SRC is that the USU tends to focus on things like campus outlets, C&S and programs, while the SRC invests more into activist campaigns. How would you describe the role of the USU?

PWW: I would say that the USU provides student experience and is important support for student culture on campus. It’s one of the largest unions in the country. It also has a student advocacy role. 

DE: Interesting that you say that — while the USU calls itself a ‘union,’ it performs a fundamentally different role to other unions which primarily exist to protect workers’ interests. So where does that name come from?

PWW: The USU’s title derives from the Oxford and Cambridge Unions, which were debating unions. To backtrack a bit, the USU started as the Sydney University Union and the Sydney University Women’s Union, which were for debating. Then they merged to become the USU. 

Today, when we deal with student advocacy and elect student officials, it has aspects of a student union even if it didn’t originate as one. Maybe it was a bit more rebellious before voluntary student unionism came in. But then a lot of issues happened around reductions in finance, and we had to lose our buildings, which changed the organisation’s culture and purpose. 

Obviously on campus, the SRC really represents a student union, but doesn’t mean the USU can never approach the fundamental aspect of what a union represents for students. 

DE: Let’s talk about your faction for a minute — Switchroots. Even though they are a non-binding faction, how much of an influence would you say they have in guiding your decisions?

PWW: Guiding has implications of directing, which isn’t the case. Generally, I like to consult with a lot of people who are in Switchroots, particularly because they have immense institutional knowledge. People in Switchroots have been on campus for many years. They’ve held roles as SRC President, Education Officers, some of them have worked in the USU, and some of them have been Board Directors. 

Sometimes I might ask them about non-confidential decisions that I’m making, just to get their insight. But I also want to chat to other stakeholders. Ex-USU presidents, maybe people who are involved in revues. I like to get a lot of different opinions so that I’m informed. I’m not bound by them, but generally we agree on most things.

DE: You’ve repeatedly said that ‘advocacy’ is one of the important roles of the USU. What role, then, do you think the USU plays in activist campaigns such as education protests?

PWW: I think that student experience has layers to it. It’s not simply programs at the core of the USU, but it’s also about making students feel safe, feel free from oppression and injustice. That’s why it’s important for the USU to support the SRC in what they’re doing. 

Something like the proposal for 12 week semesters or cuts to the School of Literature, Art and Media (SLAM) are issues that are important for students and do affect their experience on campus. Our staff members as well. 

We have to be able to speak about those things because they’re relevant to the fundamental rationale behind having been a student-led union, which is not only to keep us in touch with what students want, but also to be insightful and to what students are affected by and care about. 

DE: There has been quite a lot of debate recently about whether left-wing groups on campus should engage with the USU at all. Critics say that the left would be better off investing its limited resources directly into activism, while defenders say that left-wing USU representation can provide meaningful outcomes for the left. Where do you sit in this debate?

PWW: This has been a big conversation for a while, and I think I really helped kick it off in 2020 when I ran for USU Board (laughs). 

Firstly, it’s important to acknowledge what the USU board represents. There have been claims that we’re ‘bosses,’ however we’re not-for-profit. I don’t have KPIs for increasing revenue. I don’t profit off the USU workers. I’m paid less than the SRC President who has more direct influence over the staff of that organisation. The board directors are actually paid less than some SRC Office Bearers.

Our role is to help the direction of the USU and particularly represent members of the USU. And part of that means promoting and making visible the key student concerns which are left-wing concerns. Some past presidents or board members may not have cared, but that shows the value of having left-wing representation on board. Through USU meetings with Swapnik, and the University, I’ve had opportunities to really advocate for student concerns in the same way that he has on issues such as special considerations. 

If the left completely disengages with the USU, then you have people who just care about CV-stacking; who don’t care about the values surrounding staff or student issues; enter into these places and make the union fundamentally worse. I also think it’s put in a false dichotomy, when in fact people who engage with the USU are often really active activists, and it doesn’t come at the cost of their own activism. 

Being on the USU Board doesn’t compromise the beliefs that I have. I have not in any way advocated against the interests of the left, or against my own principles. Activism doesn’t come in one way, it comes in multiple forms. To engage with the largest union in the country with so many different clubs and societies is really important and changes the culture on campus. 

It can also support the initiatives of the SRC, even if it hasn’t in the past. And that’s already what I’ve been seeing with my relationship with Swapnik, and rekindled communications with Women’s Officers in relation to Radical Sex and Consent Week. I think that having a defeatist attitude towards the USU is a bit of a loss. 

‘I hope that we hold the respect of our members’

MH: To wrap up, what do you hope the USU will look like at the end of your term?

PWW: I hope that it looks different to the beginning of my term. I hope there are a lot of new initiatives that take off. I hope that we’ve left with a really positive relationship with other student organisations and we’re very close. I hope that we’ve integrated more student perspectives into our organisation’s programs. I hope that we hold the respect of student media, the SRC and our members. And I also hope that we can create really positive change and culture and community on and off campus. That’s the ideal world.

MH: And just a question for me, really. Do you have any plans on bringing BULL Magazine back?

PWW: I have thought about this! If you look on Wikipedia, you can actually look at old editions. We did talk about possibly bringing back Hermes editors. But we have to talk to staff and, obviously in terms of everything that’s happening in lockdown, we have to think strategically about what we bring back. Personally, I would love to see it back. I’m for having more journals and things. I just want to be Vertigo. And Honi, whatever.