How did Gabi Stricker-Phelps and Lachlan Finch’s Senate term pan out?

When asked about the structural barriers to change facing student representatives on the Senate, Finch and Stricker-Phelps said that “we’ve faced surprisingly little structural barriers”, attributing this to the “cooperative, productive and outcomes focussed” approach of University Management.

Lachlan Finch (postgraduate student fellow) and Gabi Stricker-Phelps (undergraduate student fellow) outside F23 - the University Administration Building.

Gabi Stricker-Phelps and Lachlan Finch ran for University Senate in 2020, staging an SRC ticket-style campaign backed by the young liberals on campus. The duo ran promising to ‘demand better from USyd’, stressing the importance of working collaboratively with management, in contrast with the approach often taken by the left-wing dominated SRC. As their term comes to an end, Honi analyses how effective that approach was.

Stricker-Phelps and Finch went into the 2020 election provisioning to fight against trimesters. Speaking to Honi, the pair claimed credit for the defeat of 12-week semesters at the beginning of 2021, saying that it was something they were “really proud of”. When pressed about their role, Finch and Stricker-Phelps said that “most of our outcomes came from working with the University executive and senior staff, advocating forcefully and constructively”.

However, the decision to reject 12-week semesters was made by the Academic Board, not the Senate, as that’s the body it was proposed to by University management. Stricker-Phelps and Finch don’t sit on the Academic Board, whose student members include SRC representatives and student faculty reps voted in at a separate election. 

The 2021 SRC President, Swapnik Sanagavarapu, was a vocal opponent of 12-week semesters. He told Honi that Stricker-Phelps and Finch did “next to nothing” to kill 12-week semesters. Despite being the natural contact point for an undergraduate representative wanting to influence an academic board vote, Sanagavarapu said that he “spoke to Gabi [Stricker-Phelps] once” and that he otherwise had “absolutely no recollection of any of [Finch and Stricker-Phelps’] involvements in the decision”.

Roisin Murphy, 2021 SRC Vice President and member of the Academic Board at the time, went further in claiming that Stricker-Phelps and Finch were “nothing but a hindrance” in the fight for 12-week Semesters. Murphy credited Sanagavarapu’s survey of student opinion on the change, and the hard work of the SRC representatives in lobbying Academic Board members to vote against the proposed change.

Despite these objections to the efficacy of the student representatives on Senate, Finch and Stricker-Phelps said that defeat of 12-week-semesters “was the result of a receptive and progressive University administration, and were achieved despite the SRC, not because of them”. Nevertheless, it is difficult to believe the decision of the board was the culmination of University Management’s goodwill, given the proposal came from them, as opposed to the members of that very Academic board who publicly and privately advocated against shortened semesters.

Finch and Stricker-Phelps also ran in 2020 on a platform of fixing special considerations. The announcement of automatic 5-day simple extensions last month was claimed by the pair as “big reform” achieved during their time on Senate, although they noted “there is still more work to do”. Whether our Senate representatives had anything to do with this change is again doubtful. The current SRC President, Lauren Lancaster, spoke of Stricker-Phelps and Finch’s contribution to this decision of the Academic Board in similar terms to Sanagavarapu and Murphy.

Lancaster told Honi that “the students on Senate… had no meaningful input into the reforms process, they did not engage with the working group and they rarely, if ever, engage with the SRC constructively”.

Again, although the  decision of the Academic Board sees the delivery of a key campaign promise for Stricker-Phelps and Finch, it is highly questionable whether the pair had anything to do with it.

Aside from these two big changes, it is difficult to see what Finch and Stricker-Phelps have actually achieved while on Senate. Their other promises included “putting our education first”, “help hotlines”, “improve communication” and “promoting feedback loops”, all of which are impenetrably vague. This vagueness, rather than being an unfortunate by-product of Finch and Stricker-Phelps’ approach, seems to be a core strategy underpinning their campaign and time on the University Senate. Finch and Stricker-Phelps told Honi that their “biggest opportunity to shape USyd” was through their “contribution” to the Sydney in 2023 Strategy. They also cited the review into the allocation of SSAF as a success in following through on campaign promises.

The ambiguity of Stricker-Phelps and Finch’s campaign promises make it difficult to assess whether they implemented their campaign promises. Has communication improved? Have feedback loops been promoted? Has our education been put first? It seems like these things haven’t happened. But even if they had, it would be impossible to know how much our student senate representatives had to do with it.

Finch and Stricker-Phelps’ emphasis on ‘contributions’ and ‘reviews’ has a similar problem. Their strategy deliberately makes it unclear what those contributions were, what the objective of the reviews are. Crucially, the student body is left in the dark on the most important question: will anything change?

When asked about the structural barriers to change facing student representatives on the Senate, Finch and Stricker-Phelps said that “we’ve faced surprisingly little structural barriers”, attributing this to the “cooperative, productive and outcomes focussed” approach of University Management. Such a statement is surprising considering the position of student representatives on the Senate, numbering just two on a 15-person board. It is also surprising given that key promises of Finch and Stricker-Phelps, including changes to Special Cons, semester lengths and ProctorU, weren’t within the orbit of the University Senate.

The fact that the only student voices on our University’s peak decision-making body encountered no structural barriers to their implementing campaign promises brings into question why they were there in the first place. To the point of Finch and Stricker-Phelps finding it harder to work with the SRC than with Management, the only conclusion left to make is that their time on board was primarily to facilitate the pre-existing agenda of University Management, rather than actually engage with and represent students. In an era of rampant corporatisation which threatens the student experience and the livelihoods of University staff, it appears there is nothing representative about the work our student representatives on Senate have done.