SRC President profile: Lauren Lancaster

Lauren Lancaster seeks to lead a union willing to fight for students' interests.

Degree and year: Arts/Law II
Faction: Grassroots (and Switch)
Quiz score: 76%

Lauren Lancaster is running for SRC President because she believes in “the power of progressive and student-led resistance.” An up-and-comer within left-wing activist circles, she seeks to take on the mantle of two consecutive Grassroots presidencies and lead a union willing to fight for students’ interests. 

Out of the two candidates, Lancaster has more experience with the SRC. As a current Environment Officer and convenor of the Environment Collective, she was involved in organising a 200-strong Student General Meeting and building a solid University contingent to the May 21st Climate strike. She has also been present in several campaigns by other collectives, particularly by the EAG and Women’s Collective. While she doesn’t boast tangible “wins” for students like her opponent Matthew Carter, the growth of the Enviro Collective under her convenorship demonstrates an ability to galvanise a charged and dedicated activist community on campus.

Lancaster’s pre-existing networks are a strength of her candidacy. She has established working relationships across the broader left — namely with Solidarity, which has seen a renewed relationship with Grassroots through the Enviro Collective, and with fellow Switchroots Board Directors on the USU. She can also rely on the mentorship of former Grassroots Presidents and Office Bearers. If elected, we can expect her to work smoothly with the collectives and Councillors, which may prove more difficult for her opponent.

Lancaster brings in administrative and bureaucratic experience as a current member of the General Executive, which oversees the SRC’s budget requests and staffing matters. As a first-time Councillor, she has helped organise the SRC’s Welcome Week initiatives, Radical Education Week as well as putting together various SRC publications. She also represents students on a number of university governing committees, including the University Executive Student Life Committee and Learning Environment Planning Committee, though it is unclear what she has achieved in these roles.

Scoring 76 per cent on the Honi Quiz, Lancaster edged out Carter by just 6 per cent. She faltered on some of the more technical questions — she could not name the faculty with the highest number of domestic enrolments or the special considerations model currently being trialled. Nonetheless, Lancaster demonstrated secure knowledge of issues facing the University and the higher education sector, areas which her opponent slightly stumbled on.

Lancaster describes herself as a “progressive” candidate that will continue the SRC’s “left-wing” legacy. When asked to define her politics in her interview with Honi, she responded vaguely, saying that “a progressive student body is one that values and celebrates student-led resistance,” and listing “democracy and representation” as core beliefs. She hesitated to position herself as a “radical” candidate explicitly, saying her work “speaks for itself.” This contrasts with her SRC Council run last year, where she vowed to push for an “anti-colonial and anti-capitalist University.” Lancaster’s campaign material suggests she is adopting more palatable messaging to appeal to a broader, less politicised voter base. While this would be a smart move for the election, one wonders whether she is downplaying her left-wing values to score votes.

As the candidate for Grassroots, Lancaster says her faction is non-binding and pluralist. Unlike Carter, she is not a member of a political party and prides herself on her independence. Within the SRC, Grassroots has had a consistent track record of defending students, organising resistance to OLEs, 12-week semesters and sexual violence on campus, amongst other issues. This year, however, Grassroots has experienced fractures, with several members leaving due to arguments resulting from accusations of sexism and criticisms surrounding the faction’s prioritisation of elections and lobbying over collective organising. Having been closely involved in the USU election campaign, Lancaster embodies the more electoral wing of Switchroots. However, her involvement in activism may position her as the candidate best-suited to unify existing divisions within the left. 

Lancaster wishes to fight against “all cuts to tertiary education,” asserting that the SRC must stay true to its activist roots. She pledges to “support” and “extensively resource” the SRC collectives and “agitate for more SSAF allocation” to fund SRC campaigns. At the same time, however, she values direct negotiation with University management, similar to current President Swapnik Sanagavarapu. In her interview, she states that activism alone doesn’t have any “incentive or buy-in” for university management and that advocacy through Executive committees such as the Academic Board is necessary to secure wins for students. This approach will be to the chagrin of Socialist Alternative and others in the far left.

She also states in her interview that the SRC is “first and foremost” a service provider, proposing to streamline the SRC’s Caseworkers, Legal Services, and FoodHub, and update the website. Despite a predominantly activist branding, Lancaster’s policies suggest a vision for the SRC that places equal emphasis on activism, lobbying, and service provision.

Nevertheless, Lancaster’s policies have more bite than that of her opponent. She promises to fight for universal free higher education and confront USyd’s corporatisation and mistreatment of staff. She also vows to collaborate with the generally inactive National Union of Students on nation-wide education campaigns. Her welfare policies are oriented towards more systemic issues, demanding rent reductions for all on-campus housing and affordable living for students. Like Carter, Lancaster promises to fight for Opal Card concessions for international students but goes further by pledging to agitate for fair living and study conditions. 

To engage more students with the SRC, Lancaster hopes to revitalise the International Student Collective with the leadership of her faction’s council ticket heads. She also wishes to leverage existing connections with faculty society executives to improve faculty consultation. Her COVID exit plan is less realised, however, opting to push for the “reopening of student spaces,” but noticeably lacking plans to tackle the permanent shift to online learning, support students stuck overseas, or increase vaccination opportunities.

Unlike Carter, Lancaster will not commit to deferring University during her presidency, despite the role demanding a full-time workload and attracting a $42k stipend, and despite the policy promise of increased Presidential consultation hours. Instead, she will drop to a part-time study load with two subjects per semester and “delegate” some of her responsibilities. 

The Grassroots campaign is gaining momentum across social media with consistent videos, memes, and policy statements. However, their engagement per post is significantly lower than Carter’s. While in-person campaigning is Grassroots’ strong suit, it would be naive to underestimate the strength of their online presence, with the successful election of Prudence Wilkins-Wheat to the USU Board in 2020. 

Like other recent Grassroots candidates, Lancaster is backed by the other left-wing factions on campus (Solidarity, Socialist Alternative, NLS and Penta), which stands her in good stead for Presidential victory. A three-year consecutive Grassroots presidency would be unprecedented, and the visible fractures within her own faction could weaken her electoral chances. If Lancaster is elected, we can expect a continuation of the work of Sanagavarapu before her, and the maintenance of an activist student union into the future. 

You can read the full transcript of Lancaster’s candidate interview here.

Disclaimer: Editors Vivienne Guo (a candidate for Council) and Marlow Hurst (involved with DRIP’s campaign) have declared a conflict of interest for election coverage (including this edition) and are not involved in any of the 2021 coverage of Honi Soit, NUS and SRC elections.