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USU1001: What is the USU Board and why does it matter?

Your guide to the University of Sydney Union.

Disclaimer: Khanh Tran and Ellie Stephenson are former members of Switch.

With today’s announcement of the 9 students who will be contesting this year’s USU Board Election, you may be wondering: uhh, what is the USU Board? Why is there an election? And why should I care? 

Never fear, Honi is here with USU1001! Read ahead for your guide to the University of Sydney Union. 

What is the USU Board?

The University of Sydney Union (USU) is one of several student organisations on campus. Undergraduate and postgraduate student unions the SRC and SUPRA take charge of much of the advocacy and activism on campus, while the USU represents all students and primarily engages in service provision. Most campus outlets, university events and festivals, clubs and societies are funded by the organisation. 

Composed of 11 elected student Directors, two Senate-appointed Directors and the Immediate Past President, the Board oversees the USU’s activities. Working with the CEO Andrew Mills, the Board meets monthly and gets the final say on hiring decisions, the Union’s finances, its strategic direction, and more. 

The Board elects an Executive, consisting of the President, Vice President, Honorary Treasurer and Honorary Secretary. The current Executive is composed of Prudence Wilkins-Wheat (Switch), Ruby Lotz (NLS), Ben Hines (Libdependent), and Belinda Thomas (Unity). 

Why does it matter?

Firstly, the USU is using student money! The USU receives a significant allocation of Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF) from the University. In 2020, this amounted to $5.4 million, which is significantly higher than the Students’ Representative Council’s (SRC) nearly $2m allocation. 

Each Student Director receives a stipend of $5,094 annually over their two-year term with those on the Executive awarded a more generous salary. The USU President receives $30,564, while the other members of the Executive receive $15,282.  

Secondly, Board Elections are frequently both entertaining and illuminating. The intensity with which aspiring Board Directors approach their campaigns produces outlandish antics ranging from a satirical assassination, intricate preference deals and a flood of Eastern Avenue campaigners. Indeed, the 2019 contest remains USyd’s largest ever student election with 6454 votes eclipsing even last year’s hotly contested race. 

On a deeper level, nominees are tasked with articulating a vision for the direction of USyd’s largest student organisation. In the past, candidates have discussed the importance of a more activist USU, while others have platformed the needs of satellite campuses, and others still have emphasised the role of the USU in enriching campus life. While these visions don’t always materialise, getting a say in the ethos of the Union is something that evidently attracts many students.

What issues will be important this election? 

Presiding over C&S budgets, operating a busy calendar of live events and managing more than 12 food outlets, the USU’s hefty financial turnover is another reason why the organisation carries significant clout on campus life. Prior to the shutdown of on-campus activities during COVID-19 lockdowns, the USU generated $30 million in revenue. With restrictions largely lifted since early 2022, it is safe to say that the USU will likely see a rebound in its finances in the coming year.

Although the USU Board represents all students and wields the final say on the organisation’s operations, CEO Andrew Mills presides over much of the administration of the body. The organisation has had a turbulent few years, with several changes in leadership after Andrew Woodward’s decade-long tenure as CEO came to an end in 2019.

The Board has copped criticism from many quarters for a number of key controversies: most materially in 2020, when reduced pay and hours for staff in response to COVID-19 angered swathes of the Left. Most recently, the USU failed to implement FoodHub in an awkward administrative ping-pong with the SRC. 

Further, the USU Board has frequently been criticised for lacking transparency in its decision-making process and investment strategies. During monthly meetings, it often debates the most substantive matters in camera following routine administrative discussion. The Board has taken some steps to improve its level of transparency, including providing a justification whenever it moves in camera. Nonetheless, it remains a relatively opaque institution.  

It also funds and publishes PULP Magazine, which was reformed last year into a quarterly print publication in a throwback to its past incarnation as BULL Magazine, following years of experimentation with a purely online format. 

In the past, major campaign promises have included promises for better environmental sustainability for the organisation, improved consultation of clubs and societies, outreach to colleges and satellite campuses, and a revival of live gigs and parties. These mainstays of campaign commitments will likely return, along with a potential focus on the resurgence of campus life after COVID-19.

Timeline: 

The election will be presided over by Electoral Officer Samantha Trodden who also doubles as the organisation’s Programs Manager. 

Campaigning 

Online campaigning will commence at midnight on Saturday 30 April. Two days later, candidates can do so physically on campus on 2 May. The ensuing two weeks is guaranteed to feature aspiring Directors and their coterie of campaigners ample time from which to ambush students on Eastern Avenue, the PNR Precinct or the Redfern Run.

Election Soapbox

True to its name, the Election Soapbox, happening on Wednesday 4 May, offers an opportunity for students to witness and grill candidates on their vision for the Board.

Voting 

Similar to the past two years, voting will take place online. All USyd students who are USU Members will receive an email from the USU on Monday 9 May from which they can cast a vote for their preferred candidates. The poll will open until 5PM on Friday 13 May when it will close.

Ballots will be on a preferential basis whereby students can choose to vote for more than one candidate. This means that preference deals between candidates and their respective factions will play a crucial role in determining who may or may not succeed. 

Election Night

Once the polls are closed, the USU President will announce the winners and losers of the contest in an election party in a night guaranteed to feature plenty of congratulations and commiserations.