An attack on student unionism under the cover of COVID at La Trobe university has seen funding to the La Trobe Students’ Union (LTSU) cut by 88%, with management conspiring with regional campuses to establish a new ‘apolitical organisation’ — the La Trobe Students’ Association (LTSA). The attack on student unionism comes as La Trobe cuts over 200 full time jobs. The President of the La Trobe NTEU branch was among those made redundant in the most recent round of cuts.
Last year, Presidents from the five campus student associations, including the LTSU, advocated for a merger between the LTSU, the Bendigo Students’ Association and the Wodonga Students’ Association to form the LTSA. Then-LTSU President Annabelle Romano, of Labor Unity, sold the merger to students and her own union on the basis that she had been told by the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Students) that the University would only fund a single student association in 2021 due to financial constraints. However, the DVC(E) directly contradicted Romano, saying that La Trobe would fund “as many student associations that existed.” The LTSU then voted not to consider a motion to dissolve itself and transfer assets to the newly-formed LTSA. Despite the objections of the LTSU, the new LTSA was created.
Almost immediately, the LTSU was notified by University management that its SSAF allocation would be cut by 88%, with funds reallocated to the LTSA. At the beginning of 2020, the LTSU employed 22 permanent staff. All 22 were made redundant after the funding cut. Current LTSU President Jake McGuinness, who broke Unity’s hold on the LTSU on a Labor independent ticket, told Honi that “we don’t have any professional advocates anymore, we don’t have any financial counsellors.” While the LTSU has since been able to employ two staff, “[the cuts] have massively impacted our ability to provide services to students, and there is a flow on effect to the quality of those services.” A La Trobe spokesperson justified the cuts to Honi on the basis that LTSA made “a successful tender to provide services to students.”
McGuinness has doubts about the short-term future of the LTSU: “If the University funds us to such a reduced extent again next year, it’s very difficult to see how the LTSU could continue. We might be able to get through next year, but in the years afterwards, it looks pretty unlikely unless the LTSA is shut down.”
An ‘apolitical’ organisation
Student representatives believe that the LTSA has been created to quash student activism at a time when La Trobe is cutting hundreds of jobs, privatising student housing, and dissolving entire departments. Skye Griffiths, an LTSA councillor at the main Bundoora campus, believes that the LTSA was created “as a substitute that would not speak out against them.”
The organisational structure and public statements of the LTSA lend credence to that view. When announcing the creation of the organisation, the unelected inaugural board members promoted the LTSA’s “apolitical culture” and promised “genuine partnership with La Trobe University.” In a 3500 word response to Honi, LTSA Board Chair Jenna Boyd said that the organisation was “unashamedly apolitical,” and “students organisations are supposed to exist for every enrolled student and the LTSA is about the students, not the politics.”
When Vice-Chancellor John Dewar announced in July that 230 full-time jobs would be cut, Boyd released a statement praising the Change Proposal: “it has been designed to simplify business processes and operations while making a positive difference to students, communities and partners.” Boyd has since somewhat mitigated her support, telling Honi that there were “increasing unknowns” to the proposal, though admitting the LTSA risked “sounding like the press releases of state-controlled media outlets in authoritarian regimes.”
Elections were not held for the first eight months of the Association’s existence, and the Board’s structure prevents any genuine student representation. A student council is elected at each of La Trobe’s six campuses, and each council nominates one member to the board. Thus, the Mildura campus (with 600 students) receives the same representation as the main Bundoora campus (with 30,000 students). Whereas Bundoora has a long-established and lively political culture, satellite campuses have been unable to find enough candidates to fill council positions. The LTSA constitution requires the establishment of an “advisory committee” made up of the Vice-Chancellor and four University appointees to “provide strategic advice” to the Board.
The Board has refused motions from the Bundoora council to endorse protests against University cuts, climate inaction, and the Menzies Institute on the basis that they impinge on the LTSA’s “apolitical” stance. The LTSA refused to endorse a motion condemning job cuts at La Trobe because “to condemn the restructure and stand against the VC’s attacks on staff conditions makes this a personal attack on an individual.”
Furthermore, when refuting a motion to support students attending the NUS National Conference, the LTSA said “the LTSA is not a union and we cannot be drawn into politics.”
Lavish spending as caseworkers sacked
As the LTSU sacked its entire staff, the LTSA was spending big in its first year of operation. Financial documents encompassing January-May 2021 obtained by Rabelais show that the Association spent $56,000 on “marketing and advertising,” including $25,000 on a logo, while spending $27,500 for a “multiday interstate training retreat for high-profile companies” through professional development company ‘Leading Teams.’ On one occasion the LTSA paid $900 for a limousine to take staff between campuses.
According to Boyd, spending students’ money on a logo was justified because “the establishment of a brand is as valuable to an organisation as it is to our students.” Boyd continued, “take for example your own brand name Honi Soit.” The limousine trip was necessary because “it was one of the most cost effective means of travel” for transporting the Bendigo Student Council to Bundoora.
By contrast, the LTSA spent only $14,000 on student financial counselling — less than 50% of its allocated budget, and significantly underspent on student legal services.
McGuinness tells Honi that “their spending priorities are incredibly wrong, but also emblematic of an organisation that isn’t run primarily by students but is run by a CEO.”
Griffiths says that the University’s hostile takeover of student representation at La Trobe should be concerning for all students: “I don’t want to live in a world where students can’t voice their concerns because their own student organisation is against them.”