By its own reckoning, the University had a lot of successes during its last Strategic Plan (check out last week’s Honi if you want more on what the Strategic Plan is and why it matters) from 2011- 2015. Some of these have been genuinely good for students, some have not, but here is the first of a series on goals that the University has admitted it did not achieve.
In 2014, the University of Sydney Union received a little over $15 million from its customers, the vast majority of whom purchased food from the Union’s outlets across campus like Courtyard, Manning, Wentworth and whatever the Fisher Coffee Cart is now called. Yet one of the University’s biggest and most public failed objectives between 2011 and 2015 was to take over that business. The Union was protected by an agreement that expires next year.
When voluntary student unionism (VSU) was introduced by the Howard government in 2006, the University signed an agreement with the USU to allow the Union to operate most food services on campus and hire out prominent University venues like the Quad for events. The revenue from these business opportunities was intended to make up for the $8.4 million annual shortfall that the Union experienced as a result of VSU. In return, the Union would continue to create the diverse and exciting university experience that attracts so many students to Sydney.
In 2011, the University decided its funding deal with the USU was not working. In its Green Paper that year, the University argued that because the Union still required “extensive University support” to deliver services to students, the funding arrangement was inefficient. Instead, the University proposed that it should run food services and then grant the Union funding from the general University budget. Sibella Matthews, USU President in 2011, described the University’s plan as a threat to the independent “student-run student experience” and opposed it, along with the rest of the USU Board of Directors.
The ensuing negotiations were messy, with the Board claiming that the University “should not have to resort to deception and bullying” and Michael Spence, the Vice-Chancellor, taking the extraordinary step of writing to students via Honi in response. By February 2012, neither the Union or the University had convinced the other to back down and the University ended negotiations. Instead, the outcome was determined by the original agreements. The University had the power to terminate its venue hire agreement with the USU if it gave 12 months notice, which it did. On the other hand, the food services agreement could not be terminated without the consent of both parties, so it remained in force. Serendipitously, the introduction of the Student Services and Amenities Fee more than made up for the Union’s lost venue hire money and it continued running food on campus – a situation that has remained to this day.
However, the food services agreement is set to expire next year. In its ‘2011-2015 Strategic Plan Performance Review’, the University lists the reasons for any of its failures and where it hopes to go next, but with regard to food services the report only notes the “USU has an Occupancy License that will remain in place until 2017”. Alisha Aitken-Radburn, the current USU President, said the USU was “happily working with the University” on an affiliation agreement and “the application of our option (in the old agreement) to extend for 10 more years”. If those negotiations go well, despite the ominous lack of detail in the Performance Review, then that is excellent news for students and a testament to the work that the USU has done to improve food on campus. If not, then the future is more uncertain. Either way, watch this space.