As the first day of polling day lands for the Students’ Representative Council (SRC) Elections, given that the organisation takes up an appreciable allocation of Student Services and Amenities Fees (SSAF), students may be wondering how the SRC has served the student community.
However, the past few years have seen the student union garner significant wins under its belt, from establishing Foodhub, to reforming simple extensions, to defeating USyd’s plans for a 12-week semester.
Five day simple extension
One of the 94th SRC’s major achievements this year was pressuring Sydney University into granting simple extensions of up to five days, following a sustained campaign from SRC Executives. This saw the centralisation of simple extensions by USyd’s Special Consideration Unit; in moving to a “trust-based” system, students are not required to submit a medical certificate or statutory declaration in order to access simple extensions of up to five days.
Previously, students wishing to access an extension of more than two working days had to apply for Special Consideration — a process that is not only longer, but also places a significantly higher burden of proof on students.
The measure was also implemented to combat the accumulating backlog of Special Consideration applications, which surged past 30,000 in Semester 1, 2022 alone, comfortably dwarfing the entirety of 2018. Taking this into account, the SRC’s success in getting USyd to pass the reform considerably alleviates the stress facing students who may otherwise have had to endure the often arduous process of Special Consideration.
SRC x USU Foodhub
The SRC of late has expanded its operations beyond the realm of organising and waging activist campaigns. In the past two years, it has created service provision initiatives such as the SRC x USU Foodhub in partnership with Foodbank NSW & ACT. Originally created in 2021 in direct response to the financial pressures that COVID-19 lockdowns placed on international students, Foodhub started out by offering them free food hampers containing a variety of staples including rice, canned food and milk.
Today, it has expanded to a demand-driven model where students are provided with a rotating range of essential food, ready-to-eat meals, groceries, toiletries, and cosmetics, connecting the two student organisations with hundreds of students. In Semester 2 of this year, the program was opened up to domestic students, catering for all on a needs-blind basis. The change was prompted by feedback from the community and students that the old model was inflexible and failed to cater to a number of dietary and cultural preferences.
According to SRC Vice President Emily Storey, over 1,450 students accessed Foodhub since Week 3 this semester, a clear sign of the cost of living crisis facing USyd students. With inflation rates breaking 6 per cent as of June, the continuation of Foodhub has placed the student union in a position to meaningfully and directly assist students until at least the end of this year.
Four student-and-staff strikes
2022’s three strikes in May heralded a period of industrial action from the USyd branch of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) as the union wrangled with intransigence from university management. With hundreds of students and staff effectively shutting down all campus activities and picketing entrances into campus, the strikes turned USyd into a ghost town during the initial 48-hour strike. Subsequent strike action focused on USyd’s woefully low First Nations staff numbers, calling for USyd to raise its Indigenous staff numbers to at least 3 per cent to reflect the general population.
Last month, another action took place during USyd’s Open Day that saw the SRC Education Action Group deliver their arguments to former Australian Ambassador to the United States and Liberal MP Joe Hockey.
With the NTEU having recently endorsed a fifth strike set to take place in Week 10 of this semester, 2022 is shaping up to be a historic year for student-and-staff solidarity on the picket line.
Another initiative that SUPRA and the SRC, specifically the Disabilities Collective (DisCo), has spearheaded throughout the past five years is the campaign for a dedicated Disabilities Space for students with disabilities. Prior to this, USyd was one of the only Go8 institutions not to host such a space. DisCo was faced with an onslaught of administrative barriers in order to procure the space amidst the agendas of the University of Sydney Union (USU) and USyd management. However, the Disabilities Space has finally received a green light from the University, and is being designed with consultation between the USU and DisCo.
Located in the Manning Building where the Ethnocultural Room used to be, the space is set to open in the near future.
Defeat of 12-week semester
One of the 93rd Council’s major victories was the overturning of the University’s 12-week semester proposal, led by former Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education) Phillippa (Pip) Pattinson. In 2021, the proposal mirrored policies passed elsewhere such as UNSW’s trimester and Victoria University’s block teaching model. Had the proposal succeeded, students and staff would have lost two full weeks of teaching while bearing the same content load and no changes in tuition fees.
As such, the move faced overwhelming opposition from the SRC, SUPRA, and student representatives on the Academic Board for imposing austerity in all but name, the proposal being USyd’s third attempt to shorten teaching time in a mere five years. Ultimately, the proposal was defeated by 69 votes to 10, a margin even larger than when the same plans lost the Academic Board’s confidence in 2017 and 2020.
Where to next?
The recent achievements of the SRC, laudable as they are, point towards the necessity of constant activism to raise the ire of all students and staff. Given that USyd tried on three separate occasions to push through 12 week semesters, there is no guarantee that those occupying the boardroom in F23 will not do so again. Despite finally agreeing to the much-needed Disabilities Space, USyd has yet to act on its promise to implement tactile routes around campus.
As an institution presiding over 75,000 students and some 11,000 staff, Sydney University’s population dwarfs the vast majority of regional cities. If USyd’s plans to host 25,000 students in Western Sydney by 2055 are realised, then the institution will have broken into the top 20 largest cities in the country.
Against this backdrop, the purpose of the SRC as a student union is to raise students’ voices and agitate for a vision of higher education beyond the bottom line of University finances. The alternative is students’ voices going unheard amid the sheer scale and atomised nature of the modern neoliberal university.
Without activism’s sustained public pressure and disruption of the status quo, the achievements of the student union may not have come to fruition. The election of a less radical SRC would likely entail a greatly diminished campus life.
USyd’s SRC already operates with a much thinner budget relative to its siblings on campus like the USU, SUSF, or the University’s enormous $1.04 billion surplus, magnifying the importance of strong student leadership and electoral participation.
Without the concerted efforts of student representatives and activists, the achievements and activism of the Students’ Representative Council would not be possible.
Voting for SRC elections is open from Monday 19 September to Wednesday 21 September.
Disclaimer: Zara Zadro was, until recently, a member of Switch, Zara Zadro is not involved in the coverage of the 2022 SRC, NUS, Honi Soit and President elections.