Few multi-million dollar businesses would trust students to manage their operation. Fewer still would let students fill their board of directors. But the University of Sydney Union is a business like few others. It manages all clubs, bars, shops, festivals and entertainment held at USyd; it fights a constant struggle for solvency in the wake of voluntary student unionism; it faces the looming threat of takeover from Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence. USU President Sibella Matthews certainly has her work cut out for her.
Matthews—a 21 year old law student hailing from North Sydney Girls High School—became USU President during the semester holidays, but she’s been involved with the Union since she joined Law Revue in first year. This is her first year without taking the stage. “I’m having withdrawal,” she says as she surveys the stacks of papers on her desk. “My favourite nights out and afternoons at uni were just hanging out with Law Revue people before rehearsals,” she tells me. Matthews was also an executive of the Fine Arts Society and took on various responsibilities in the Law Society (SULS).
These experiences with the Uni’s Clubs and Societies (C&S) program helped to get her where she is today. “I thought, ‘I’m getting so much out of the Union, I want to give something back and see how it all works’,” she remembers as we discuss her entry into student politics. At the time she knew several people on the board. Friends like ex-Board Director Doug Thompson, ex-President David Mann and ex-Treasurer Giorgia Rossi all encouraged her to run. “All of them talked about how much they loved being involved with the Union and that it was the best thing they’d done at uni, so I did some research into the Union and the role of Board Director.”
Before becoming Union President, Matthews went through the same gruelling rite of passage all student politicians go through – campaign season. For three exhausting weeks the University is taken over by chalked slogans, coloured T-shirts and rising tensions. “Even if you were getting along with the other candidates beforehand, when campaign day hits everyone becomes ruthless.”
And ruthlessness isn’t limited to campaigners. “I gave this guy a flyer on voting day and he says, ‘I’ll take yours if you take mine.’ So I take his flyer and it says ‘Fuck you! No-one cares about your stupid election.’ I lost it.” But campaigning isn’t all bad. When I ask Matthews what the best part of campaign season is, she immediately responds: “meeting new people.” Besides her own election, she’s campaigned for ex-President Mann and current Board Director Brigid Dixon. “It’s always a joy to know that you’re helping out,” she says.
Shortly after joining the Union Board, Matthews became its Honorary Secretary, chairing the C&S program. The position involves many responsibilities, like sitting on every student leadership interview panel and overseeing student publications like The Bull and Hermes. She thoroughly enjoyed this role; ”It’s closely connected to the student things I loved, which were the reasons I got involved in the first place.”
As the USU’s new President and spokesperson, her roles are even more important. She sits on various external committees, liaises with University Senate and Union members and controls what she calls ‘spot fires’. “When things like Fair Trade or the recent Liberal Club fiasco pop up, it’s the president’s duty to manage them.”
This year’s Union Board has a unique set of challenges, most importantly dealing with the Vice-Chancellor’s proposed takeover of Union services. However Matthews remains optimistic, showing me the Operation License—a massive document detailing the legal agreements between the USU and the University. This agreement only expires in 2017, so if the University wants to take control of Union services like Manning or Wentworth before then, the USU would have to pass a constitutional amendment. “Any changes to the constitution must be passed by at least two thirds of members. We can’t agree to anything members won’t agree to, and the University knows that as well. It’s a lucky safeguard we have,” she says with a smile.
It’s possible that the University could withhold the Service Level Agreement (SLA) funding (i.e. indirect funding which goes into the maintenance and repair of USU buildings) if negotiations with the Union don’t go well. While the SLA is due to end this year the University has implied it will be renewed. “They’ve told us to continue with a ‘business as usual’ approach,” says Matthews, which she takes as a good sign. I hope she is correct.
“The University Senate is still assessing whether a transfer of our commercial operations (or any aspect of them) is valuable or even feasible for them.” She’s confident that if the USU can address the their concerns it can avoid a takeover. “If we can show the University we can get better food and funding, why would they want a costly transfer [of services]?”
Earlier in the year many confidential negotiation documents were leaked, such as letters between former USU President Mann and the Vice-Chancellor. Matthews says the Board has “learned to manage sensitive information better and recognise what members need to know and what is better kept confidential.” The new USU President believes she’s learned a valuable lesson from the Fisher Library renovation fiasco, where student misunderstanding of the renovations’ scope led to a series of pointless protests. “A little bit of information can go a long way.”
She also chairs the Board’s communication strategy group. “It’s a real challenge for a board to maintain consistent communication. At the start of last year we aimed to be more open and transparent … but it dropped off,” she admits. The new Board Directors are dedicated to improving board-student communication “because they were so recently ordinary members and frustrated with the old board’s communication.”
Between her role as President and her degree, it’s a miracle Matthews has any free time at all. When asked what she does to relax, an awkward fifteen second silence falls before she remembers she really likes live music and enjoys travelling whenever she has the time. She isn’t exactly sure what she wants to do after uni. “I don’t really want to practice law,” she whispers. Management consultancy, public service or the competitive Department of Foreign Affairs could all be options, especially with the skills gained as a Board Director (let alone as President).
To those considering taking up student politics, Matthews is very encouraging. “Do it. It’s the best thing you’ll ever do at uni,” she says. “The only way you can get through weeks of campaigning is with the support of your friends.” Her last words of advice to students? “Come to Verge!” This President loves her Union. One can only hope that she and the new Union Board are up to the challenges that lie ahead.