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USU and SUSF: USyd’s corporate sweethearts

SSAF negotiations unduly reward corporate organisations

The Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF) is an amount of money every university student in Australia is required to pay every semester. In fact, most students would have received an email this week informing them that this semester’s payments have been processed. The fee funds student groups such as the University of Sydney Union (USU) and the Student Representative Council (SRC), the groups in charge of USyd’s events, clubs and societies, student publications (like this one!), and welfare services. 

SSAF was made mandatory by federal legislation following the introduction of voluntary student unionism (VSU) in 2006. Its purpose was to mitigate the effects of VSU on the funding of student organisations. Problematically, SSAF legislation sets out an incredibly broad range of services which the fees can be spent on, providing universities with significant discretion over the way money will be allocated. 

At USyd, the allocation of SSAF fees is decided every year by means of each student group preparing budget proposals for the upcoming year. The organisations are guaranteed 90 per cent of their previous years funding as a ‘base amount’. After each organisation’s base funding is allocated, the remaining SSAF fees are placed into a contestable pool of funding. That contestable pool is divided between student organisations, making SSAF allocations a zero-sum game. While historically these negotiations have led to a joint-proposal about funding allocations, in recent years no agreement has been reached. 

Notably, the group that consistently takes home the largest share of SSAF money every year is Sydney University Sports and Fitness (SUSF) operating with millions of dollars every year. In 2018, they were allocated over $5 million in SSAF funding, as well as generating over $14 million in revenue, in addition to their significant generous donations from ‘Hockey Donors’ and ‘Boatshed Appeal Donors’. 

The University has long since been criticised for the amount of funding SUSF receives, especially due to the fact that its managerial structure has been known to hinder student engagement. Recently, an overhaul of the governance structure has been carried out, with SUSF undergoing a process of incorporation which sees the University being given powers to influence the appointment of SUSF’s company board. The restructuring means there is even less student input than previously, with only two student directors to be appointed to the board. The general student population is afforded no transparency into the operations of the organisation, let alone given voting rights. This change indicates an even further departure from any attempt by SUSF to be anything resembling a student-led organisation. Despite this, USyd has indicated no intention to alter the amount of money in SSAF funding that SUSF receives.

Alongside SUSF, the USU is allocated the second largest share of SSAF, receiving $4.3 million in 2018. That figure stands at more than double that received by the SRC. There are numerous problems with this allocation of funding. 

Firstly, corporatised organisations like the USU and SUSF have significant alternative sources of revenue. This allows them to exercise discretion over what projects they can include in their proposal for contestable funds, cherry-picking those which are appealing to USyd management. This is a luxury that organisations like the SRC who entirely rely on SSAF for their funding simply do not have.

In a post-VSU era, the organisations that are most corporatised and profit driven, like SUSF and USU, are rewarded with an increasing hunk of student money. Many of their projects fall nicely within the key performance indicators outlined in SSAF legislation, allowing them to attract favourable treatment from USyd. 

As SUSF and USU’s scale of operations grows, so too do their base costs, leading to more increases in funding, creating a problematic cycle. It is extremely telling of the University’s intentions for the future of student unionism for them to increasingly prioritise funding for these profit-driven organisations.

Funnelling exorbitant funding to organisations like SUSF and USU comes at the cost of supporting student unions which have the power to provide vital welfare services, such as food subsidies, advocacy for affordable housing, mental health services, free legal casework, and so on. It is more important than ever that genuine student unionism is supported to actually represent and protect student interests, and fight the corporatisation of our institutions. Students and student organisations should not merely be an avenue from which to make money, and as such, SSAF allocations should be on the basis of student needs, rather than the amount of revenue an organisation is able to generate.

The reality is that SUSF and the USU are multi-million dollar organisations, able to generate their own hefty income and source funding from numerous other channels. Organisations like the SRC struggle for scraps despite entirely relying on SSAF funding. The services they provide are critical for students facing the worst of circumstances. SSAF legislation places all the power in USyd’s hands. Whether they will exercise that power justly remains to be seen. At the end of the day, to the decision-makers in USyd’s ivory tower, goat yoga is probably more appealing than sexual assault lawyers.

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