Contemporary student unionism in Australia is a difficult beast to define. The introduction of the Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF) in late 2010 by the Gillard government came into effect during a deeply depoliticised and dull era in the student movement. The introduction of Voluntary Student Unionism in 2006 had achieved its aim of hollowing out student activism and destroying vibrant campus communities. Although SSAF legislation placed power in the hands of increasingly corporate University administrators and expressly forbid the funding of political activities, as student organisations began to receive their share of fees, student life was again re-invigorated. Serious student opposition to Labor’s attempted $2 billion in higher education cuts, impassioned protest campaigns against staff and course cuts at a range of campuses and mass student opposition to fee deregulation marked the reemergence of student activism. One only had to walk down Eastern Avenue last week to see a flurry of colour- ed shirts, queer students protesting the Catholic society and incredible live music booming next to free Union cupcakes.
A closer look at recent history uncovers a worrying undercurrent in student unionism however, as the political implications of SSAF have encouraged the demobilisation of student protest and a shift towards a focus on service provision and managerial collaboration. For those fighting for their jobs and fearing unaffordable fees, this is arguably against the interests of university communities.
Away from the unstoppable activist culture of Sydney University’s political milieu, the University of Western Australia Guild – which combines USU style service provision with SRC-esque activist departments – recently passed a controversial motion. Moved by President Maddie Mulholland, the motion stated the Guild would not run any protests against the University’s “Renewal Project”, which involves the slashing of 300 staff jobs. Such protests, often run in collaboration with the National Tertiary Education Union, were arguably instrumental in shelving the Liberal government’s plans to deregulate university fees. They are vital to mobilising students and staff against the corporate power of the modern university.
On the UWA Guild’s decision, NTEU UWA Branch Vice-President (Academic Staff ), Stuart Bunt commented, “Obviously we don’t see that as particularly helpful. We try to work with the Guild, however they are beholden to the university. I can’t tell you their reasoning but I think it’s very difficult for the Guild to act politically as they are now dependent on University funding and audited so closely that anything that smacks of politics must be explained to management.” However, unlike universities in other states the UWA guild is assured an immediate allocation of 50 per cent of SSAF due to state-specific legislation, which makes their decision to not support protests against the University politically questionable. Bunt noted that this trend of demobilisation began with VSU, a move he saw as “A very purposeful move from the Liberals. Student unions are generally hotbeds of the left and the Liberals wanted to destroy student activism.”
However, evidence of the power of SSAF to politically control students extends back to its initial implementation. In 2012, a protest campaign against the vicious restructuring of La Trobe University was quite successful, fighting some of the deeper cuts. However, the then-Vice-Chancellor threatened the President of La Trobe Student Union, Clare Keyes-Lily with the rescission of their SSAF funding, which had allowed the Union to reform after a post VSU collapse, unless the campaign was wound down. Keyes-Lily co-operated and the union leadership thereafter opposed the campaign against the cuts.
Closer to home, the University of Sydney Union Board, in 2013, voted against most measures pro- posed by then-Vice-President Tom Raue showing solidarity with the NTEU strikes due to concerns the disruption of commercial operations would affect their bottom line. Only last year, the RMIT student union released a statement criticising their NTEU branch from going on strike, as “Students should not be used as chess pieces between bargaining powers”. A pattern emerges: student union administrations are regularly forced to be compliant to University governing bodies, lest they jeopardise their funding and existence.
Heidi La Paglia, the current National Union of Students Women’s Officer, experienced these realities as Tasmanian University Union President in 2015: “Management tied the SSAF to specific uses, we couldn’t use SSAF for anything political such as NUS organised protests. Management used us as a service. The underlying threat was that if we engaged in anything they considered too political they would deny us funding.”
La Paglia explained that it is essential that “student unions are working with staff in solidarity and we recognise issues facing staff and students are usually the same issues. Working against each other hurts us both.” Bunt expressed similar sentiments commenting, “We share a common cause. The University used to be entirely run by staff and students, something that has been too easily forgotten.” The SSAF is imperfect legislation, and so the student movement must collectively decide how to continue to mobilise in a context of austerity and internal division. Student unions can either become service arms of University administrations or stand with staff to collaboratively articulate a different vision of higher education in Australia.