What are the real benefits of free USU membership?

The changes will actually see students paying more for food in some cases

Whit text against a yellow background which reads: Free membership! with an asterisk following.

You may have already heard it: on Wednesday, the University of Sydney Union (USU) announced that from 2019 onwards, membership will be free for all students.

Students may join clubs and societies with no financial barrier aside from the occasional nominal registration fee. Food and retail discounts, previously 15%, will be reduced to 10% — but will be available only through an opt-in scheme priced at $45 a year.

The move was made possible by a near $1 million offering from the University itself.

The changes are no doubt beneficial to students in certain respects. Students will now be able to immerse themselves in a society without the prohibitive financial barrier of ACCESS fees. Under the previous scheme, an eager first year would have to fork out at least $75 before joining any clubs or societies. This would be in addition to over $150 for the Student Services and Amenities Fee, over a quarter of which already goes to the USU.

What is less obvious is how the changes to food and retail discounts will benefit students. As mentioned, the previous scheme gave ACCESS members a 15% discount at USU outlets. ACCESS memberships came in three options: one year, three year and five year. A five year membership, the most cost effective of the three, was equivalent to paying $55 a year.

As mentioned, under the new scheme, students will have to opt-in to food and retail discounts by paying an annual $45 fee, but will receive only a 10% discount.

When applied to a student who spends $600 a year on food and retail goods at USU outlets (or roughly $24 a week during semester), it’s clear that “free membership” will, in fact, cost some students more money.

Taking into account a 15% discount, as well as the equivalent annual cost of $55 for a five year membership, a student spending $600 a year under the old five year membership would save $35 each year. A student spending the same amount of money but paying $45 annually for a 10% discount will save only $15. This is $20 less than they would save under the old scheme. In fact, anyone spending over $24 a week during semester would have been better off under the old scheme, paying $75 annually for a 15% discount.

Under the USU’s new membership scheme, the habitual patron of USU outlets will in fact be paying more than they would have under the old scheme.

In a statement to Honi, USU President Liliana Tai clarified that current three or five year members would still retain their 15% discount until the expiration of their membership.

It might be argued that this is simply a levy on food and retail customers to democratise the USU: though some may pay marginally more for their sandwich or coffee, it’s worth it if it means all students will now be able to access the benefits that come with club or society membership. Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that the USU’s changes to memberships and discounts will not benefit all students equally.

It’s also worth noting that the changes will not benefit students exclusively.

Hard though it may be to believe, the University’s million-dollar offering is not pure philanthropy. In her statement to Honi, Tai also explained that the sum was only contributed providing that the USU remove the price barrier to clubs and societies. According to Tai, this was due to the “shifting priority within the University and the Senate about prioritising student experience.”

It’s not difficult to see why this priority shifted in the way that Tai describes. The University is perpetually obsessed with its rankings. For that reason, it’s likely of great concern to the University that in the Student Experience Survey — funded by the Department of Education and Training and conducted annually across the nation’s 41 universities — USyd most recently ranked fifth last.

Viewed in light of this deficiency, it becomes difficult not to see the USU as essentially a service provider for the University, enlisted to rectify what has become an embarrassing blemish on its reputation.

It may be true that, in this case, the goals of the two institutions align. It is also worth noting however, that for a self-proclaimed “independent, student-led” organisation, the USU now finds itself closely intimated with and dependent on the University.

The USU’s recent announcement is far from all it seems. Contrary to the eloquent remarks of the editors of Pulp, the new discount scheme is not simply a “sweet reduced price”, but will in fact cost consumers more. Moreover, in a time when student unionism may again be under attack from the right, students should beware the potential consequences of relying on an institution which at one stage was not afraid to flirt with fee deregulation.

Free membership for all it seems, but not without a price.

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