A national union in name only

Eden Faithfull sheds light on growing dissatisfactions around the National Union of Students.

Eden Faithfull sheds light on growing dissatisfactions around the National Union of Students.

The National Union of Students (NUS) was founded to represent the interests of tertiary students across Australia. A cursory glance at the Union’s website informs us that it has been established to “fight for affordable, quality education, better living standards for students, and make our campuses safer for all”.

However, 2016 has seen intensifying dissatisfaction in the way the NUS are carrying out these responsibilities, if at all. Recent news of the NUS general secretary seeking legal advice over the president’s removal only added to perceptions of internal dysfunction within the organisation.

As reported in Woroni, the ANU’s Student Representative Council held a meeting in March to discuss whether the ANU Students Association (ANUSA) should reaccredit with the National Union of Students. Following discussions from both sides, the motion to reaccredit failed by a vote of 12 for, and 18 against.

An ANU student and Woroni reporter for Honi spoke to claims the reasons behind this decision were manifold. Among these was an accusation that the NUS’s National Conference is no longer a safe space for students, with drunk and disorderly conduct being a staple of the event.

The student claims that during NatCon students in competing factions have used psychological and physical intimidation tactics, such as confronting and harassing students in corridors in the middle of the night. Along with this, they point anecdotally towards a rise in reports of sexual assault.

ANUSA also allegedly prepared a list of demands that featured changes the NUS should enact by the end of 2015. Though there were attempts to carry out a small number of these, the overall inaction exhibited in regards to the suggestions led to ANUSA’s reinforced belief that the NUS had little potential for internal progression.

Liam Carrigan, Sydney University’s Student Representative Council’s Education Officer, suggested that while students should be constantly critical of the body representing them, disaffiliation is too drastic a measure.

“The National Union of Students is incredibly important, considering the Australian government has only recently reconfirmed their desires to deregulate university fees, seeing lower SES students locked out of the possibility to attend tertiary institutions.”

“The attacks on universities are currently at an unprecedented level, and the events such as the National Day of Action has brought the issue of education to the fore of Australia’s consciousness. I believe we should remain critical of the NUS, but remain involved with it. There is nothing else like it for tertiary students on a national scale.”

But ANU is not the only tertiary institution demonstrating its dissatisfaction. Adelaide University, whose student union (AUU) effectively controls the SRC budget, has decided to reduce the NUS accreditation budget of $14,625 in 2015 to zero, making it impossible for Adelaide to accredit the NUS at all this year.

Former president of the University of Adelaide Liberal Club and AUU board director, Rhys Williams, moved the motion on March 23. Williams claims the union’s affiliation with the NUS has been “extremely wasteful on numerous levels”, and claims the affiliation endorsed “left-wing student hacks to jet-set around the country and play Prime Minister”.

“Every year the delegates we send, from all sides of politics, report back to this Board of the unproductive National Conference which shuts out all legitimate debate in the name of grubby, backroom deals between the Labor factions.”

“NatCon continues to earn a reputation where violent socialist groups come and intimidate people on the basis of sex and ethnicity. The organisation does not seem to be doing anything to stop this behaviour, hence we should be playing no role in condoning this conduct.”

The motion carried by a vote six for, and four against.

Adelaide University student and editor of On Dit, Lur Alghurabi, claims that anti-NUS sentiment had been present on campus for some time. A key motivation for passing the motion, she said, was that so few students were aware of the NUS, and should therefore not be compelled to pay money towards it.

Making the decision exceptionally easier was the fact that it was not an unprecedented move. Many universities around Australia have bitten the bullet and come to the conclusion to disaffiliate from NUS.

“The fact that ANU pulled out of NUS as well was a major motive. I believe from memory that less than half of Australian universities are affiliated now, and that doesn’t do the NUS’s reputation any favours with the Adelaide board”.

The AUU saw the opportunity to redistribute the affiliation fees to fund a scholarship program for refugee students. Alghurabi argued that it would be a highly visible move should it become reality, playing to the AUU’s interest.

With 2016 being an election year, and the very real possibility of Australia facing a federal election on the July 2, it is a disturbing truth that the union founded to represent and advocate for the interests of tertiary students across the nation has not yet even begun their main campaign for the federal election. With such an advocate, perhaps it is time for Australian tertiary students to demand more for themselves and their interests.