I was back in the Merewether building for the first time since first year Economics, and, if you can believe it, this time it was even more cursed. That’s because I was spectating the National Union of Students’ (NUS) Education Conference (EdCon), and the archaic wooden benches of the lecture theatre are already quivering with the robust discussions to come.
EdCon is the annually-held baby cousin of the NUS’ National Conference (NatCon), where student representatives from around the country bus-in to debate the NUS’ approach to all things education. This year it’s being hosted by the USyd SRC and purports to have a focus on reviving student unionism.
“Universities can be places of liberation, they can be a nexus of creativity, imagination, critical thinking and community,” the Conference programme promises. They can also, as I’m about to witness, be the sites of petty factionalism and grim myopia.
Inauspiciously, a number of EdCon themed Twitter accounts — like ‘EdCon Mask Rating’ and ‘Capitalist Alternative’ — were already tweeting by the time I checked at 10am, the nation’s student politicians not content to confine their buffoonery and bad faith to the corporeal realm.
I attended five workshops and plenaries over the day, so here’s what your Boneheaded BNOCs (BBNOCs) got up to.
SAlt, sobbing and strategy
There’s one thing your student representatives seem to agree on, no matter their ideology: we need a strategy.
Unfortunately, the consensus just about stops there.
The morning plenary about the future of student unionism saw epithets fly between factions as they litigated the path forward for the Union.
Socialist Alternative — publisher of this rag’s greatest competitor, Red Flag — advocated for the path of most resistance, so to speak, suggesting that the NUS could only be weakened by hobnobbing with university managers and lobbying with federal politicians.
ANU SAlt speaker Grace Hill suggested that the Union had “absented itself” from the fight for students by being insufficiently confrontational towards Labor politicians — unsurprising given the vast majority of the NUS National Executive belong to Young Labor.
“Labor has signalled what side they are actually on in this fight… they are on the side of the employers,” Hill insisted, receiving heckles from the Labor-dominated audience.
SAlt speakers aimed squarely at attempts by Labor politicians (both student and federal) to broker deals between university management and staff and students.
“The key thing that we’re arguing here is that Labor have been some of the key architects of the neoliberal uni,” said USyd’s own Maddie Clark (SAlt), suggesting that negotiating Accords or Student Partnership Agreements was doomed to fail because of the innately misaligned interests of students and university management.
Grassroots was broadly inclined to agree, with several speakers questioning the worth of university management’s promises.
“To support uni management and the government when they are cutting education is selling out students,” said USyd Education Officer Lia Perkins.
“They are obtuse documents that they then use to try to unite interests that are fundamentally opposed to each other along class lines,” said SRC President Lauren Lancaster in reference to the Student Partnership Agreements.
Despite this, the two factions still found time to swap insults, with SAlt claiming “the biggest difference between factions in this room is SAlt vs Grindies.” Various speakers traded accusations that their opponents were claiming clout for activism they hadn’t done, while SAlt speakers Grace Hill and Shovan Bhattarai (UNSW) used their talk on how to revive student unionism to insist on the value of a SAlt-aligned NUS Education Officer.
Meanwhile, NLS (Labor Left) maintained that “we can do both”, claiming the NUS should balance activism and lobbying.
UMSU President Sophie Nguyen argued that although lobbying Labor might not extract massive wins for students, it was better than nothing: “Let’s be honest they [the Albanese Government] probably won’t fucking repeal [the Job-ready Graduates Package], but let’s be clear, having the small changes allows us to fucking mobilise students.”
NLS and SAlt fought one of their weirdest strategic clashes over two-minute noodles. SAlt seized on a 2010 national noodle-eating event — apparently an anti-poverty action and failed Guiness World Record Bid — as an example of the impotence of Labor’s governance of the Union.
“That’s shameful!” screamed one NLS observer. The noodles? The failure to earn a World Record? The ongoing vacuum of political action on student hunger? Who can say.
Unity’s (Labor Right) vision remained steadfastly unambitious, with a focus on direct service provision over broader campaigns.
Deakin Uni’s Guleid Abdullahi argued that, “VCs aren’t the enemies, though they are dickheads” and suggested that “we need to achieve something tangible” before aiming for higher (and presumably illusory) goals like free education.
In a workshop about student welfare (read: service provision), Unity student representatives argued that the “jurisdiction” of student unions extends only to providing immediate aid to students through things like food pantries.
It is a student union’s task to do “literally anything they [students] actually want, instead of things like protest,” said one Unity student.
A mere five minutes later, however, Unity was once again insisting on the ‘we can do both line’, claiming they never said activism couldn’t coexist with service provision. Could’ve fooled me.
What’s more, despite pointing to the “intersectionality of welfare”, Unity members refused to explain why movements to address things like broader youth poverty were not the business of student unions. “We’re a student union, we’re talking about student welfare, do I really need to say more,” said one speaker.
Perhaps the most telling moment of the session saw one Labor delegate asked if they believed students could make any political change through activism.
“Are you really that defeatist?” asked Local Exasperated Postgraduate (LEP) Oscar Chaffey.
“Yes,” shrugged the delegate.
Emblematically, one NLS student told the plenary: “We’re all recognising there’s a problem with the NUS, but I haven’t heard a single faction actually give a solution to the problem.”
But when asked what NLS’ solution would be, the response failed to satisfy: “It’s not about what NLS is going to fucking do.”
It seems one thing the NUS need never fear is a solution in search of a problem.
“When I see an empty campus, I feel like shit…” — Online learning and accessibility.
Another key area of contention was the extent to which online learning benefits students, with Unity members arguing that successful online services help include international and rural students in tertiary education.
NUS Small and Regional Officer Jonathon De La Pena argued that students shouldn’t have to travel four hours to get an education, saying: “Something we can do though is to normalise and advocate for these sorts of avenues [online learning].”
Abdullahi discussed his experience as an international student, telling the session that international students stuck in their home countries deserve better support: “the mental strain that [COVID-19] had on students… means these students cannot properly do their online examinations.”
In response, SAlt speakers argued that online learning had resulted in a “massive boon to university management” by allowing them to increase profits.
SAlt member Peter, an international student from China, argued that “the major problem is management using online learning as an excuse to decrease the quality of education… the role of student unions should not be confined to improving online accessibility.”
This produced a lengthy exchange of yelling between USyd’s Eddie ‘no relation’ Stephenson and Abdullahi, with the latter releasing a stream of interjections: “PLEASE EDDIE… EDDIE RELAX… EDDIE EDDIE PLEASE… YOU’RE KILLING ME.”
What’s more, Abdullahi told SAlt that distance and lockdowns weren’t the only deterrents to students visiting campus in person: “Students don’t feel safe on campus, mostly because of people like you — who sell them Red Flags and give them panic attacks.”
The NUS and the Uluru Statement from the Heart
The first session of the day was substantially more considered, seeing panellists discuss the Uluru Statement and the broader strategy activists should take with respect to First Nations rights.
Gomeroi woman Gwenda Stanley explained that any legal process should “be on our terms, our conditions” rather than imposed by colonial governments. “Ask us what we want,” she added.
“Let’s scrap the old constitution and make a new one for multicultural Australia.”
Wiradjuri, Yuin, and Gadigal woman Nadeena Dixon told attendees that: “a lot of our communities do not support the Uluru Statement at all.”
She questioned the success of treaties overseas, adding that “…this whole country was built on the law of terra nullius… we need to start with something fresh.”
Bundjalung Gumbaynggirr Dunghutti woman Lizzie Jarrett also contributed, saying that the process of decolonisation needs to include the whole Indigenous community: “When we have gatekeepers, there’s no chance of closing the gap.”
“To go forward we have to go Blak,” she concluded.
Don’t worry, there’s two more days of this:
Luckily for you (less luckily for me), we’ll be back, with gems like “How To Defeat Scab Unions 101” and “comprehensive advocacy” awaiting us tomorrow.