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USU Board Meeting: Pulp overhaul, USU generates 2021 surplus

The last Board meeting of 2021 highlighted the USU’s significant financial surplus, strategic review plans and the future of Pulp as a print magazine.

On December 10, I attended my first 1.5-hour-long USU Board meeting so that you didn’t have to. Here’s how it went.

Significant surpluses amid austerity

Despite a year marred by an extensive COVID-19 lockdown and shutdown of campus, the USU made revenues of $13.6 million in addition to turning a substantial profit of $496,000. This marks a decrease from 2020 when it generated $17 million. 

It is understood that a $655,000 slice of projected profits is earmarked for the organisation’s equity reserves for 2022. 

Notable areas of savings throughout 2021 include staff expenditure which stood at $6.8 million, representing a 28.6 per cent reduction from 2020 – a year that already witnessed brutal 40 per cent cuts to staff hours. Even accounting for 2022’s more optimistic projections, staff spending will remain far below pre-pandemic levels. 

“A lot of effort from management has seen the USU save quite a bit of money and we will endeavour to do the same next year,” USU Director of Finance Rebecca Sahni said. 

This year’s profits, staff expenditure and Shahni’s statement strongly imply that these savings were accrued from austerity measures imposed by the USU during the height of restrictions when Wilkins-Wheat announced a voluntary reduction program of working hours to staff. 

In 2021, key areas of USU investment fell into infrastructural fit-outs for the Holme Building costing $192,000. 

The proposed 2022 budget for the USU includes a significant demand of $629,500 from USyd to attend to “extremely urgent capital projects” aimed at the viability of the USU in the coming years. This would represent a substantial increase from this year and 2020 with the last time comparable expenses were made dating back to 2019. 

At least for this year, the budget was not discussed in-camera.

Committee Review

The meeting began with a committee review report by Vice President Ruby Lotz. Every year we see Board hopefuls strut across Eastern Avenue and barrage us in the DMs, making promises of reform. It was heartening to see the Board investigating the performance of its committees and their chairs. There was particular emphasis on ensuring committee members possess the skills and experience to meet current and future challenges.

The response rate for committee members averaged 65 per cent (or 35 questionnaires). Major weaknesses included skill differences and discrepancy in institutional knowledge between committee members, inadequate handover procedures and upskilling pathways, an overemphasis on the minutiae rather than overall strategic direction and ill-defined term lengths for external committee chairs.

From the ensuing discussion it seems that implementing steps to resolve these problems are in the very early stages and the Board informally resolved to discuss further in the new year and leading up to the USU Review.

USU Review

Speaking of, the Board spent a few minutes discussing the upcoming review, whereby the Board evaluates the USU’s strengths, weaknesses, and capacity to meet stakeholder desires. That’s all of us by the way. They mentioned that the USU will need to start thinking strategically about the future if it wants to reinforce the organisational pillars of sustainability, student centricity, and staff support. The Board stated that this strategic review was on a 50-year timescale.

The Review will involve a research and consultation phase to maximise engagement. At this stage, it is unclear how the consultations will be structured or who they will engage. However, when discussing the need for third-party reviewing, Board Director Cole Scott-Curwood suggested they would need someone familiar with the organisation. The Board considered impartial ex-staffers as a potential avenue. Should this entail constitutional or other changes, the Board’s preferences for third-party involvement at first instance can only raise further concerns about its notorious opacity. 

Design updates

USU CEO Andrew Mills presented an overhauled design of the USU Heart of Uni Life logo and Welcome Fest promotional material. While technical difficulties made it difficult to appreciate the “important little corrections” initially, we were eventually treated to the revolutionary redesign. While it does look better than its predecessor we hope it didn’t cost too much…

We should also expect some “youthful & fun” clothing designs that resemble streetwear heavy hitters “like Nike” and “Adidas”.

The University has allocated three times the regular budget for Welcome Fest in 2022 and with that comes three times the fun in its promotional material. We have all the USyd greatest hits here: sandstone buildings, composting Jacaranda leaves, bin chickens, and students deep in conversation.

 Pulp to be revamped 

Six months ago, the USU started to interrogate the role of Pulp and conceived an alternative vision. USU President Prudence Wilkins-Wheat explained that the impetus behind this was to break from the reality that Pulp is “like Honi with a smaller readership.” Whereas Honi Soit has traditionally been a countercultural student newspaper, she sees Pulp as a place for students to express their comedic, cultural, and creative panache. 

Wilkins-Wheat compared Pulp to The New Yorker, with Honi Soit resembling The New York Times. This comparison comes from the perception that, since Pulp’s creation in 2016, the online news outlet has acted as a de facto “stepping stone” to the Honi editorship, in addition to direct competition with Honi for breaking news coverage. Former Pulp editors who have gone on to edit Honi include Madeleine Ward, Ellie Stephenson, and Fabian Robertson.

Arguably, Pulp’s reimagined format would resemble its pre-2016 predecessor BULL. This was a creative monthly magazine best known for photojournalism and long-form features. 

While Pulp was originally conceived as an online-only, Junkee-style publication, Pulp 2.0 will comprise 8 print magazines with 34-64 pages per edition. There will be a senior editor appointed by the Board. Prospective editorial teams will consist of 6 members and apply as a team. Subsequently, a selection panel will put forward the top 3 teams for a student body vote. However, this vote is not binding and the selection panel will have the final say on the top two teams selected by the student body. In response to queries from Honi, Wilkins-Wheat clarified that this stage does not constitute an election. 

When we asked how the Board will ensure that the selection process is inclusive, Wilkins-Wheat told Honi that Pulp hopefuls will be given the chance to join a Facebook group where they can meet others who share a vision and form a team. The USU seems to think they may get dozens vying for a position. It remains to be seen whether this proposed model will alleviate longstanding concerns about the exclusivity of editorships. Ticket formation is often influenced by pre-existing friendships and stupol connections. Only time will tell if their proposed approach will work.

Wilkins-Wheat also noted that editors of Honi Soit must be undergraduates at the time of running, which excludes some 25,300 postgraduate students who may be interested in an editorial role.

Vaccination policy

Naturally, the presence of COVID-19 still looms over us and will continue to in 2022. Accordingly, the Board discussed the need to potentially re-examine their vaccination policy. The efficacy of vaccines diminishes with time. Many of us will be getting our booster shots soon but for those late to the party, you might need to wait a few more months. Whether or not students will need boosters to attend USU venues and events is something the Board resolved to discuss later in response to the changing recommendations of the University and NSW Health.