State of the Union: Why you should care about the USU election

The USU plays a huge role on campus, and the decisions made by its Board and Executive have a direct impact on the lives of students at USyd.

This week, campaigners will take to Eastern Avenue (and all the places you’ll go to avoid it) in an attempt to elect their friends or faction to the University of Sydney Union (USU) Board. The USU has an enormous influence over the student experience at USyd — controlling millions of student money and organising and funding a vast array of events and programs that students use every day. The chance to get a share of this power is why all the people you haven’t spoken to since first-year are texting you and all those people are out and about wearing fluoro shirts. But it’s also why you should pay attention to and vote in this election.  

What is the USU?

The University of Sydney Union (USU) is a student organisation at USyd which provides services and programs for students to improve their University experience on campus. As opposed to the Students’ Representative Council (SRC) and the Sydney University Postgraduate Representative Association (SUPRA) — which drive activism and advocacy on campus, representing undergraduates and postgraduates respectively — the USU fulfils its role for undergraduate and postgraduate students alike.

For students beginning at University, the USU’s Welcome Fest — held at the beginning of both semesters — is likely their first experience with the USU. The USU is in charge of organising Welcome Week activities, including stalls and events. It receives significant funding from University management to be able to do so.

The USU is perhaps best known for its clubs and societies program. Most clubs and societies at the University are affiliated with the USU and, in turn, receive funding which helps them operate. To join a club or society, students must be a member of the USU. 

Most of the food and drink outlets on campus are operated by the USU. Venues such as Courtyard Cafe, Manning Hermman’s Bar and the Fisher Coffee Cart are all operated by the USU. The USU also operates retail stores selling USyd merch. 

The USU’s building stock, including the Wentworth, Holme and Manning Building, are a key part of its operations. The USU rents out these venues, often to clubs and societies, and holds many of its events within them. Autonomous (Ethnocultural, Queer and Women’s, with Disabilities soon to come) spaces can be found in these buildings. 

In the arts, the USU supports revues. Identity revues (People of Colour (PoC), Queer and Womens,) are held in Semester One, and faculty (Arts, Business, Engineering, Law, Medicine and Science) revues in Semester Two. 

PULP Magazine is funded and supported by the USU. Run by a Senior Editor (currently Marlow Hurst) and six editors, PULP is a culture focussed magazine and hopes to extend the reach of student media beyond the news and politics focus of Honi Soit. PULP returned to a print form in 2022, after it was started as an online-only publication in 2016 following the demise of the USU’s earlier in-print BULL magazine.

What is the USU Board?

The USU’s Board, in the Union’s own words “is responsible for the operational and strategic business of the USU.” In practice, this means keeping an eye on all of the USU’s initiatives and shaping the Union’s overall direction.

Fourteen people sit on the USU Board. Of these, eleven are elected student Directors, two are Senate-appointed Directors (students have no say over these appointments), and one is the Immediate Past President.

From the Board (normally, Directors in the second of their two-year term — which may change this year through candidate Ben Hines), four people are elected by Directors to the USU Executive. The Executive is composed of the President (currently, Cole Scott-Curwood), Vice President (Telita Goile), Honorary Secretary (Isla Mowbray) and Honorary Treasurer (David Zhu).

The Executive takes on an increased role within the operations of the USU. The President, in particular, is the Board’s spokesperson, and thus the most prominent member in the public eye.

What is the USU Election?

Student directors of the USU Board are elected in elections in May each year. This year, in-person campaigning begins on 1 May. The polls open — USU members (a majority of USyd students) will be sent a link to their emails — on 9am Monday 8 May. They close on Friday at 5pm Later that night, the results will be announced by the Union and reported on by Honi.

Notably, Senate-Appointed Directors do not get elected by students, despite them getting control over student money and what is, at least in name, the student union at USyd. The existence of Senate-appointed Directors and their influence over Executive has led to them being frequently criticised by the student body.

Why does any of this matter?

The USU plays a huge role on campus, and the decisions made by its Board and Executive have a direct impact on the lives of students at USyd.

This starts from the fact that the USU is allocated significant amounts of student money, sourced from the money students are required to pay through the Student Services and Amenities Fee (the SSAF). In 2022, the USU received $6.2 million in SSAF funds. On top of this, the USU generates large amounts of money from its operations, mostly its food and drink outlets. It had an overall revenue of $15 million in 2021. By comparison, the SRC — which itself has contested student elections in Semester Two — only received two million dollars in SSAF in 2022, and generates little other revenue.

But it is just only control of money which is why the USU, and thus its election, is important. It is also what it does, or could do with that money. 

At each election, candidates will put forward a vision for the USU’s future. Each of those visions entail prioritising the various functions of the USU. Frequently, this looks like changing how the USU’s outlets operate (cheaper food, longer happy hours), measures to improve campus life (increased arts and performance, more parties). Other times, candidates a more activist USU: one which supports staff strikes and other activist causes and takes a more active and public stance on issues facing students. 

In addition to this is how candidates offer visions for how the USU operates. Measures such as increasing accessibility for marginalised students, improving the relationship between the USU and clubs, and making the USU and its Board more transparent (a common criticism levelled at the Union) are all part of this. 

Voting in this election means having a say in which of these visions you think should guide the USU and all its influence. It also means making sure that the elected student Directors are actually qualified for the role, and have the skills necessary to bring their visions to fruition.

Otherwise, USU elections can be entertaining. The stunts and general drama of election campaigns brings campus to life, giving them a certain intrigue. Get excited! It’ll be a wild ride.