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What the vice president stipend tells us about the SRC’s financial priorities

The SRC’s vice presidents will now be paid $27,820 or around 67% of the SRC’s latest funding guarantee while SRC Collective funding and Panda election promises fall to the wayside.

SRC Logo of quad with money notes being dropped on it

In SRC Minutes seen by Honi today, the SRC Executive unanimously resolved to pay SRC Vice Presidents Wanlin Chu (Panda) and Dane Luo (Independent) a total stipend of $27,820, or $13,910 each, pending review and discussion at the SRC general meeting in March. Honi understands that Luo and Chu did not vote on the motion which passed in the December executive meeting. The meeting, which barely reached quorum with four executive members present, saw Luo and Chu foreshadow their increased responsibilities, highlighting the creation of an “Interfaith Festival” and greater engagement with faculty societies.

The new stipend was made possible by the release of $41,345 in funds previously allocated to student-facing services like the SRC’s now defunct second hand bookshop. This comes on the back of several months of SRC disarray following the attempted rolling of the Wom*n’s Collective and the collapse of three repselects with numerous office bearer positions remaining unfilled, which has left a sense of persistent ambiguity over the state of the 2019 SRC budget. The VP stipend stands to overshadow the budgets of the SRC Collectives. Under the 2018 Budget, the Autonomous Collective Against Racism (ACAR) and the Queer Action Collective (QuAC) were afforded $2,000 and $3,200 respectively.

The timing of the decision to pay a stipend to the vice presidents is particularly interesting given its proximity to negotiations over the allocation of proceeds from the Students Services and Amenities Fees (SSAF) which constitute the SRC’s primary source of funding. In 2018, the SSAF, paid by each student at USyd, amounted to a total of $16,259,051 and was distributed amongst the SRC, University of Sydney Union (USU), Sydney University Postgraduate Association (SUPRA), Sydney University Sport and Fitness (SUSF), The Cumberland Student Guild, and Student Support Services. The distribution of that money (with the exception of $2,000,000 allocated to a capital sinking fund) is determined by a prolonged period of negotiations between these organisations in which their basic funding requirements, as well as expected projects for the year, are considered. It is likely that the SRC’s ongoing dysfunction will significantly weaken its standing in these negotiations and subsequently reduce the total amount of funding it receives. If this occurs, the decision to allocate $27,820 of its available budget to remunerating what has often been considered a “figure-head” position is likely to come under question.

Various pre-selected convenors of collectives have been vocal in their criticism of the executive’s decision. Swapnik Sanagavarapu, one of ACAR’s preselected candidates for ethnocultural officer, told Honi “In a time when collectives have been dissuaded from having their own t-shirts for Welcome Week due to budgetary constraints and tight SSAF negotiations, it is disheartening, but unsurprising, that the Gen Exec has chosen to give money to the VP rather than to collectives.”
Wom*n’s Collective Convenor Layla Mkh added to these criticisms, telling Honi “once again the 2019 SRC is showing us how they not only don’t care about student unionism but the fact they don’t know how to run the organisation.”

However, SRC President Jacky He seemed not to give much weight to these concerns.

“In the future, once the stipends of the Vice Presidents have gone on for a year, they become included as a part of the base SSAF funding which is guaranteed to obtain for the following years – and the amount and flexibility of the SSAF that we receive would not be affected,” He said.

Whilst He is correct in pointing out that the money for a VP stipend is not directly coming out of SSAF allocations this year, it would be misguided to think the decision bears no consequence on funding for collectives or other SRC services.

In December’s executive meeting, two funding requests lodged by former SRC President Imogen Grant and the Wom*n’s Collective for merchandise totalling $1,500 were rejected “in camera” (a decision to hide discussion from the public record). However, a member of the general executive informed Honi that the rationale for rejecting those requests was the SRC’s weak position in the aforementioned SSAF negotiations. If this is the case, the $41,000 made available through the bookshop’s closure could have been used as a safeguard against a potential decrease in total funding. The funding rejections also continued a track record of limited transparency where, in RepsElect 2, the majority bloc, including members of the SRC Executive, had voted to move “in camera.” The SRC Executive’s first two meetings also contained “in camera” discussions. Unlike the USU whose meetings frequently go in camera due to issues of commercial confidentiality and fiduciary duties, the SRC Executive has no equivalent reason for these discussions.

In addition to funding concerns, it is also questionable whether the role of vice president is worthy of a subsidy in a context where ethnocultural, queer and environment officers do not receive any remuneration from the SRC. In a statement to Pulp, He justified the decision on the basis that “Dane and Caitlyn have been performing above and beyond their obligations.”

The ongoing RepsElect difficulties have meant “unelected office bearers have not been able to contribute to the SRC as much and the VPs have worked extremely hard to make sure the collective stalls and essential merchandise are put together,” He said.

When asked why such duties could not be distributed amongst office bearers, He responded: “office-bearers, in accordance to [sic] the regulations, would not have the capacity to perform the role.” Whether office-bearers would be restricted from performing these functions under the current regulations is contentious. Ultimately, however, even if this were the case, it is unclear why the option of altering those regulations was not explored prior to pushing for stipend reform.

A further reason behind the vice presidents’ greater obligations and workload may be the recurring absence of SRC Co-General Secretary Yuxuan Yang (Panda), who in 2018 spent three months overseas and only returned one month’s worth of pay. Despite this, Yang was re-elected as General Secretary at RepsElect 1. Honi understands Yang is currently undertaking an internship in China where his “ability to communicate with the team is undermined,” according to He, due to internet and Facebook issues. This leaves open the possibility of incumbent Co-General Secretary Niamh Callinan (Unity/Labor Right) facing an increased workload which Luo and Chu have assisted in with a “proactive perspective to a vague description of a large role” according to Callinan.

Yang did not respond to Honi’s request for comment.

The new VP stipend clashes with Panda for SRC’s 2018 campaign promises. Panda’s policy statements previously promised to “subsidise fund [sic] into providing more electronic copies of textbooks” as well as establishing “$6,000 SRC-endorsed scholarships.” The executive’s decision to increase executive pay and source the funds from two-thirds of the SRC’s new funding guarantee, during a difficult budgetary period, effectively squanders funds that could be otherwise expended on Panda’s election promises and student services outcomes in the immediate future. The decision also remains at odds with principles of “service” espoused by recent campus Liberal and right-of-centre candidates. Unsuccessful 2017 presidential candidate Brendan Ma (Mod-Lib) had promised to take $5000 from his own salary to establish a means-tested textbook subsidy pool.

Stipend reform is not particularly novel. Attempts at installing stipends for multiple office bearer positions failed in 2018 and will be re-attempted under He in 2019. But the concentration of a large portion of student money into a single executive position deviates from past proposals. The new stipend tells us, as students, that the SRC’s financial priorities are being reconfigured. As with all financial decisions, there are winners and losers. For now, with a shiny new $27k stipend, only the SRC vice presidents win.