Is the NUS as bad as NatCon makes it seem?

The yearly conference is the NUS at its most visible - but how accurately does it reflect on the NUS' performance

Every year, the National Union of Students holds a National Conference, known as NatCon, which paints the NUS in a highly unflattering light.

NatCon is meant to be a space where delegates from across the country come together to draft the NUS’ policy and elect office bearers for the coming year. It is hard to tell how much is actually achieved, by way of policy, because the four-day conference is deliberately opaque. Mainstream media cannot attend and student media are banned from filming. Observers, including media observers, are required to pay a prohibitive $1000 registration fee. The NUS does not publish minutes for NatCon.

Despite the secrecy, NatCon, which is indirectly subsidised by average students via the SSAF, is known for being a huge waste of money. Every year that Honi has attended the conference, we have found that would-be politicians act like overgrown children when they are not truly subject to scrutiny: they scream and cry, get into scuffles, chase one other around the room, and eat pieces of paper to prevent motions from going to the floor.

NatCon is the most visible example of the NUS in action; from a distance, the NUS seems to be synonymous with NatCon.

But, whilst reporting on NatCon last December, Honi took a moment to ask: is the NUS as bad as NatCon makes it seem?

Judging by 2017 alone, the NUS appears to be less dysfunctional than NatCon would have you believe.

The NUS ran several fiery campaigns this year, despite the fact that office bearers’ campaign spending fell by $19,388 from 2016 to 2017. The ‘Make Education Free Again’ campaign, led by Education Officer Anneke Demanuele (SAlt), made national headlines for disrupting politicians’ breakfasts, and President Sophie Johnston (NLS) made submissions to Senate Estimates on fee deregulation. In the Welfare portfolio, Jill Molloy (Unity) led a campaign against Centrelink’s error-prone ‘robo-debt’ system. In the Queer portfolio, Chris Di Pasquale (SAlt) led a voter-enrolment drive as part of the Yes campaign.

Beyond campaigning, 2017 saw the NUS edge closer to institutional reform. The union entered into a memorandum of understanding for closer cooperation with the national tertiary education accreditor, TEQSA, and signed partnership agreements with the Council of International Students Australia (CISA), the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) and the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Postgraduates Association (NATSIPA). Johnston says that the union is about to bring on a permanent Executive Officer, whose duties will include managing grants applications, partnerships and marketing. Indeed, the NUS upped its marketing strategy in 2017: the union spent $21,160 on Meltwater News, a Norwegian self-described “AI-driven media intelligence” company.

On the financial front, the NUS turned its 2016 deficit of $61,178 into a surplus of $11,952. The surplus was made possible by Griffith University, Edith Cowan University and the University of Western Australia re-affiliating with the NUS, and bringing with them thousands of dollars in affiliation fees. General Secretary Nathan Croft took credit for the financial turnaround in his outgoing office bearer speech.

Honi has reason to believe that Croft overstated his role in bringing the budget to surplus. According to Johnston, the NUS ran a significant deficit in 2016 because some member institutions paid their affiliation fees after the cut-off date for the financial year. Johnston says that the jump from 2016 to 2017 would have been far less dramatic, had those member unions paid on time. Griffith, ECU and UWA’s decisions to re-affiliate with the NUS are decided by on-campus politics. Unless Croft’s influence extends to each of these campuses, it is likely that Croft transformed the deficit into a surplus by reminding member institutions to pay before the end of the financial year. (Honi cannot confirm if Croft played a larger role, beyond ironing out an administrative error, because, despite initially reaching out to Honi, Croft declined to be interviewed).

NatCon has seen improvement in one respect. In past years, each session started roughly five hours late, running from around 2pm until well past midnight. This year, each session began about an hour late, running from around 10am until 7pm.

The NUS also appears to have improved, when measured against the incredibly low standards it has set over the last decade. The organisation rests on unstable foundations – its funding model is broken and its governance structure is fundamentally flawed.

The Howard government’s 2005 decision to replace universal student unionism with voluntary student unionism crippled the NUS’ funding model. The national union is now overly dependent on the goodwill of its campus-based member unions, which are pressed for funding themselves. Member institutions set their own affiliation fees, based on what they can afford (or what they claim they can afford), and in recent years many member unions have cut their contributions or disaccredited in response to the NUS’ poor performance.

The NUS’ model of governance is as problematic as its funding model. Three factions control the organisation: Student Unity (Labor Right, known as Unity), National Labor Students (Labor Left, known as NLS) and Socialist Alternative (a Trotskyist group, known as SAlt). A loose grouping known as the National Independents, which involves Western Australian independents in coalition with Grassroots, also has a presence. The Executive is structurally predisposed to in-fighting because the three major factions split the paid offices of President, General Secretary, Education Officer, Welfare Officer, Women’s Officer and the two Queer portfolios, as well as several unpaid positions.

The NUS forced itself to confront its problems in 2014, when it hired a consulting company to audit its dwindling accounts. The company, TLConsult, recommended that the NUS operate more like a corporation – for instance, by introducing key performance indicators for office bearers and employing an Executive Officer to oversee management. Since then, the NUS has been locked in an internal struggle between modernisers, who are willing to embrace TLConsult’s ideas, and more traditional activists, who want to revive a culture of direct action.

Incoming President Mark Pace (NLS) recognises that the NUS is on the brink of irrelevance.

“Between financial opacity, and poor communication and accountability of office bearers, the national union has continued to be found lacking by our member organisations and potential affiliates,” he told Honi. “I believe this means we have to radically reconsider how the national union organises.”

The NUS has struggled to inject accountability into the Executive and some office bearers have gotten away with underwhelming performances. For example, Disabilities Officer Taylor Ficarra’s (Unity) outgoing office bearer speech was a public apology: they admitted that they were ineffective in their role and asked the floor for forgiveness.

“I didn’t step up to the plate of what a NOB [national office bearer] should do because I had a series of other things going on in my life like work, education, family [and] relationships…I didn’t do nearly as much of what was expected,” Ficarra tells Honi. “It’s better to be honest in my report rather than lie to protect my ego,” they add.

Other office bearers allegedly neglected their duties. A source from NLS says that Ethnocultural Officer Lorena White was “inadequate” in her role because she attended just three of the monthly Executive meetings. A source from Grassroots says that they were they were shocked to discover, halfway through the year, that Queer Officer Lauren Saunders (SAlt) even existed. (White and Saunders were both unavailable for comment. Honi cannot confirm allegations about absent office bearers because the NUS has not released its full 2017 minutes or its 2016 minutes or its 2015 minutes…).

Honi understands that the union tried to introduce key performance indicators for office bearers, with little success. According to Johnston, several member institutions each set KPIs for the Executive, and office bearers were overwhelmed by the messy array of targets. In hindsight, Johnston thinks that the Executive should have set their own KPIs. At NatCon, Pace proposed that the NUS meet “affiliation KPIs as set by campuses,” which seems to contradict Johnston’s recommendation about setting KPIs at a national level. In any case, SAlt voted the motion down, on the grounds that KPIs are corporate inventions and thus are not befitting for a union.

Pace has pledged to establish and strengthen accountability measures in 2018.

“Concerns about the lack of accountability measures in the union…have been left unattended for too long,” he says. “Understandably, students want to ensure that their affiliation money is being spent to the benefit of students…This may include publishing minutes of meetings of the Executive, or proceedings of the NUS National Conference and subsequent actions made [sic].”

Factionalism exacerbates problems associated with a lack of accountability. Without accountability measures in place, office bearers are free to run their portfolios as faction fiefdoms: they can rely on their faction’s members and campaigning strategies to try and achieve their faction’s aims.

For example, sources have suggested that SAlt ran the protests the NUS took credit for, and used these protests to push their own agenda. One source, an independent from the University of Melbourne, says that SAlt activists “mostly stood around at [YES] protests selling copies of Red Flag,” their faction’s newspaper.

The Executive may have turned in on itself, had Johnston and Molloy not united to take a bipartisan stance on factionalism.

“Any time factionalism or factional issues come up everyone knows I will walk out of the room,” Johnston says. “I think it’s divisive…[It] creates this groupthink mentality.”

With a weaker Executive at the helm, the NUS’ culture of factionalism might rear its head again in full.

A lack of accountability and factionalism besmirch the NUS’ reputation, which adds to the organisation’s financial instability. The NUS’ last financial statement may have read relatively well but the organisation is still debilitatingly dependent on affiliation fees; Johnston estimates that affiliation fees represent up to 90% of the union’s revenue. This means that the NUS is extremely sensitive to member institutions decreasing the amount paid in affiliation fees, as well as to dis-accreditations and dis-affiliations. The NUS is operating in a hostile environment – life in a post-VSU world is tough – and it is not helping itself.

Given the extent of the NUS’ flaws, is the union unsalvageable?

Groups with a smaller presence at NatCon, which obviously don’t feel represented by the NUS, tend to think so.

For example, USyd SRC President Imogen Grant, who is a prominent member of Grassroots and spoke to Honi on USyd Grassroots’ behalf, says that the NUS cannot truly represent the student movement because it is a Labor front. Grant even suggests that the organisation was founded with the intent of dividing and demobilising the student movement.

Similarly, Howard McClean, one of ANUSA’s 14 General Representatives, who would have been a delegate to NatCon if the ANU had reaccredited, tells Honi that “a national level organisation is vital” but indicates that this organisation need not be the “incompetent train wreck” that is the NUS.

“We need an organisation capable of mobilising every university across the country to leverage the collective voice of thousands of students to protect our interests,” he wrote in a statement on ANUSA’s 2017 reaccreditation vote, in which he voted against reaccreditation. “NUS in its current form cannot do it…Sweeping reforms are needed, and if these reforms cannot be found within NUS they should be looked outside it.”

The NUS’ attempt at reform is confused because, as you would expect, different factions have different ideas about whether and how the NUS should reinvent itself.

Broadly speaking, Unity believe that the NUS can best affect change by operating through official Labor Party channels — by winning elections and lobbying. Unity is more interested in ensuring that the union survives than in radically overhauling the organisation. When Unity command approximately 45% of the NatCon vote and half of the Executive, as they did this year, they stand to gain from simply keeping the NUS afloat. (Unity’s two most prominent office bearers, Croft and Molloy, were both unavailable for comment).

SAlt want the NUS to focus on on-the-ground campaigning and, accordingly, want to see the union transform into a protest machine.

“The key to NUS successes is protest campaigns [sic],” Demeanele says. “Different factions are always going to do the different things that they see as priorities but I think as long as there is broad support for protest campaigns, then NUS can move forward.”

NLS occupies the middle ground, according to Johnston. Labor Left is willing to work within the system and rail against it, depending on the situation.

“For NLS, we are directly in the middle of where SAlt and Unity are, in terms of we’re not just protesting all the time, we also agree that you need to be in the room, you need to be providing a voice to universities or government or even TESCA,” Johnston says. “NLS does a lot of facilitating that way – there’s a reason we’ve been President for thirteen years.”

Johnston prides NLS on its willingness to compromise, and this quality is evident in her personal vision for the NUS. In 2015, Honi analysed the NUS’ response to the TLConsult audit and concluded that the union was caught between being the “beating heart of student activism nationally” and “quasi-corporate…service provider.” Johnston seems to believe that the NUS can play both parts. For instance, she wants the NUS to start “functioning more like an actual union,” by standing up for students in academic disputes. She also wants the NUS to establish an individual membership scheme, where individual students could buy NUS membership in exchange for discounts, much like USyd’s USU.

The NUS appears to have improved in 2017, especially when it comes to early nights at NatCon, but the union is beset by the same old problems: too little funding and too much factionalism. The NUS’ funding model is still unworkable. The organisation is almost entirely dependent on affiliation fees and, when campuses set their own fees, the NUS is at the mercy of relatively powerful member institutions, like USyd’s SRC. Some of the union’s new governance strategies are also savings strategies: for example, forging partnerships with environmental collectives is an alternative to reinstating the office of Environmental Officer, which was cut in 2016.

Introducing accountability mechanisms should ensure that NUS’ scarce supply of money is spent more productively – on exercises more productive than NatCon – but mechanisms with a corporate tinge, like KPIs, are politically difficult to pass. Political opposition to TLConsult-style reforms, spearheaded by SAlt, indicates that the union remains divided on whether it should undergo quasi-corporate restructuring.

Factionalism continues to determine the direction of the union – or rather, the lack of. The extent to which the Executive prioritises national concerns over factional concerns largely depends on the imagination and willpower of specific individuals; too much is determined by personality, too little is determined by organisational processes.

The NUS may be a little less dysfunctional than it has been in the past but, when each faction is desperately trying to bring its own version of the union into being, the NUS’ transformation is ultimately confused.