A manifesto for the University of Sydney Union
Marked by a twin cost of living and student housing crisis with “mind blowing” rents and return to in-person learning, the USU cannot continue with business as usual.
After the mirage of Welcome Week, organising surrounding the University of Sydney Union (USU) Board elections inevitably begins to gain steam. Familiar talking points are circulated around the Union: clubs and societies, support for revues, transparency, governance and whether one should always adhere to fiduciary duty, necessary as they are.
Student life in 2023, however, is not normal. Marked by a twin cost of living and student housing crisis with “mind blowing” rents and return to in-person learning, this year is one that cannot be regarded as business as usual.
Here is a manifesto of what the USU should consider to make USyd student life more secure:
- Going beyond Foodhub and paying volunteers
The Union has a profound financial and moral mandate to implement more comprehensive measures in combating the cost of living crisis currently gripping student life at the University.
As is, there is a dire lack of imagination on what the Union could do.
Consider Foodhub – regarded by many as one of the USU and SRC’s more tangible and immediate efforts to combat the cost of living crisis affecting students. Yet the amount requested for 2023’s run ($75,000) amounts to a mere 0.5% of the USU’s 2021 revenues. This is a conservative estimate given that the return of in-campus learning last year all but guarantees a glowing financial statement come June.
Then there’s the long-term identity of Foodhub itself, having started in 2021 as an emergency relief measure in partnership with Study NSW. It’s an open secret that Foodhub, with its origins as a food bank, needs a sustainable vision going forward.
Aside from reforming Foodhub, the USU must seize the chance to pay its student volunteers. The investment that the organisation needs to bring to pay volunteers compared to the welfare of its members and the Union’s common good is small.
Using the standard hourly wage of a USU casual waiter as a baseline, we can assume that the USU pays $30 for a low estimate of 500 volunteering hours or five working hours. Between 100 volunteers per Welcome Week, the organisation will only pay $15,000. This alone would represent a mere 1.2% of the USU’s surplus in 2021.
On top of this, the USU’s finances are set to increase steadily over the coming years thanks to a de facto arrangement through Sydney University’s MySydney scholarship scheme where USU Rewards memberships are covered for low-SES students in their first year by the University.
Within a few years’ time, if one were to take a conservative assumption that USyd maintains a low-SES student enrolment rate of 9% by 2025, this would mean the USU stands to receive more than $65,000 per year from MySydney scholars. And that’s before one considers the profit that the organisation gets from more than 1,500 extra Rewards members.
The case for the USU paying a meaningful wage for its volunteers is thus overwhelming. The long-term benefits for students and the Union are immense. Data from the latest QILT Student Experience Survey ranks health and stress (50%) and financial difficulties (22%) within the top five concerns that students had in considering dropping out from university. In this lens, reforming USU volunteering into a paid system would provide a desperately needed source of financial security.
The Union should also not overlook the long term benefits of building a more cohesive student culture, anchored by increased responsibility from the organisation to its workers. If in doubt, it should look inwards to Pulp, the student magazine that does pay its editors and writers, whose work has cultivated its own community.
- Abolish the Rosebowl, Palladian Cup and call for affordable student housing
Beyond the colleges’ appalling record on sexual assault and sexual harassment (SASH) as noted in 2022’s National Student Safety Survey, they are astronomically expensive. Just a few days ago, students at St Andrew’s College were accused of “acts of intimidation, misogyny and homophobia” by Sancta Sophia.
Rents at Oxbridge’s colleges do not hold a candle to USyd’s. Even if we’re taking catered halls in central London, catered rooms at the University of London’s intercollegiate halls hovers at $310 per week. In comparison, St Andrew’s charges an astronomical $1,009 per week while St Paul’s charges $900 per week for freshers.
Two weeks ago, in response to a post I made regarding the current student housing crisis for international students, a Liberal student councillor messaged me: “If you came along to a dinner and evensong you’d find it’s a lot more than a glorified catered hall.”
Therein lies the fallacy in the colleges’ logic: since when did churches charge a premium for sacred music? Since when did communal dinners cost an extravagant amount?
These are the realisations I had as a former resident at Sancta’s Graduate House. They charge a hefty premium for prestige and an old boys’/girls’ network far beyond a comfortable room and busy social calendar.
The USU, wielding influence over the Rosebowl and Palladian Cup, could start by abolishing all USU college-affiliated programs until these institutions become safe, affordable student housing for domestic and international students.
Six of the USU’s current Board Directors (and a majority of student directors) are either current or former residents of a college before we consider the profit that College residents churn into its Rewards program. There will, in all likelihood, be hesitations within the organisation to put a halt on its intercollegiate programs. Indeed, during last year’s elections, current Board Director Madhullikaa Singh said that the abolition of the colleges was not “feasible” because the system “is frighteningly colonial and powerful”.
However, this system is not inevitable. The number of USU members, not least its low-SES members and other marginalised communities, far outweighs college residents. Action is long overdue on the residential colleges to transform them into affordable student housing and to that end, the USU must be a part of that movement.
The terms of Board Directors and USU staff will end as they always have – largely dictated by the demands and mechanics of running a large organisation representing nearly 75,000 students.
However, this is a chance for a braver imagination of what a more secure student life looks like under the Union. If the USU wishes to create a genuinely meaningful, lasting legacy, then action on students’ financial precarity and affordable housing, among a host of other priorities, lies at the heart of the mandate that it receives.
Otherwise, the USU will miss yet another opportunity to change our student experience for the better. Should that happen, it would be a shame for one of the oldest student organisations in the country.