In December 2022, the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) held their Annual Council Meeting (ACM). Far from the technical, perhaps boring, meeting that many expected, the meeting was rife with chaos. Attendees were muted, legal threats brandished, and many attendees — long term affiliates of CAPA — were denied the right to vote. When female attendees spoke against the removal of their voting rights, they were labelled “unprofessional” by members of the almost all-male group eventually elected. It was by all means calamitous: indicative of a deeply wounded organisation.
The story of CAPA, the peak body for postgraduate students at 27 Australian universities, including the University of Sydney, is highly alarming. CAPA is ordinarily a place where postgraduate student unions from each Australian university can coordinate activism, research, and lobbying in the interests of postgraduate students. From campaigning to increase PhD and research student stipends to criticising course and university funding cuts, CAPA has the potential to drive positive change for postgraduate and undergraduate students alike.
However, its slow decline reveals the fragility of student unionism and the dangers of factionalism which threaten the solidarity at the heart of effective student advocacy.
What has led to such a crisis at CAPA? How deep do the problems run? What does the future hold for postgraduate student unionism? Honi spoke to multiple long-term CAPA members in an attempt to find out.
Three years before dysfunction plagued CAPA’s 2022 ACM, CAPA implemented a new constitution which some have identified as the source of the current crisis. The key change it implemented was the establishment of a Board of Directors (the Board), in addition to the existing Representative Committee, the body which represents CAPA’s affiliate unions.
The introduction of the Board is central to this story. It has led to a centralisation of CAPA’s power within the hands of a few, due to the Board’s extraordinary powers over the day-to-day functioning of CAPA and the difficulty affiliates have in exerting influence over the Board’s choices.
CAPA has been afflicted by allegations of improper elections stretching back to 2021. Some affiliates claim that these elections were conducted illegitimately, or in a manner inconsistent with CAPA’s purpose.
Nidzam Shah Hussain, a student at Swinburne University, was elected as President in both the 2021 and 2022 ACMs. This means that Shah is officially President of CAPA, and has executed his authority accordingly.
However, Errol Phuah, a previous President of CAPA, claims to be the ‘national caretaker President’. Honi was told that this claim emerged after a group of affiliates asked Phuah to stay on as ‘caretaker President’. As caretaker President, Phuah has continued to attend roundtable meetings on behalf of CAPA, has repeatedly emailed affiliates from a similar — but different — domain to the one being used by Shah, and is still performing many of the duties of the CAPA President.
The elections which saw Shah officially elected as President were mired in controversy. Dr Sharlene Leroy-Dyer, CAPA Board Chair and President of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Postgraduate Association (NATSIPA), said that at the 2021 ACM election, there were disputes as to “who could and couldn’t vote”.
At the ACM in December 2022, there were again significant disputes as to the validity of Shah’s re-election. These disputes, again, stemmed from which University unions had voting rights as affiliates of CAPA.
On CAPA’s website, 27 University unions are listed as affiliates, who, based on Honi’s understanding, should have voting rights.
It is therefore surprising that at the December 2022 ACM, Returning Officer Tully Smith reported that only 12 universities were “accredited delegates” and thus capable of voting.
When asked for comment, Shah told Honi that he is “pleased to be recently re-elected by a majority of affiliated members based on those efforts. This is a testament to the trust they have in my leadership to steer us through.” This was in response to a specific question about why so few university unions were affiliated.
One of those student unions — who, despite what is said on CAPA’s website, could not vote in ACM in December — is the University of Sydney’s postgraduate union, SUPRA. Under CAPA’s constitution, an affiliate loses their voting rights if they do not pay their affiliation fees, with CAPA required to notify them before they can be disaffiliated.
Gemma Lucy Smart, Disabilities Officer for SUPRA, told Honi that SUPRA requested to pay their affiliation fee and followed up on this request “many times.” However, according to Smart and SUPRA President Weihong Liang, CAPA did not invoice SUPRA for their affiliation fee. Without the invoice, SUPRA didn’t pay their affiliation fee in 2022.
Smart and Liang don’t believe SUPRA could have.
Smart says that CAPA only notified her of SUPRA’s failure to pay an invoice after she sent an expression of interest in running for election as CAPA’s Disability Officer. Even after this, Liang told Honi that CAPA still did not invoice SUPRA.
How then can CAPA justify stripping SUPRA of their affiliation and voting rights, if SUPRA attempted to re-affiliate multiple times yet were, in effect, not permitted?
When asked, Shah told Honi, “I can confirm that SUPRA is not a currently affiliated member organisation of CAPA. The CAPA Constitution makes clear what constitutes an affiliated member and the criteria of affiliation.
“We do openly welcome SUPRA to affiliate once we’ve had an opportunity to review our rules and fee structures, which are currently underway.”
Shah, despite being asked by Honi, did not say he denied Liang and Smart’s version of events.
With SUPRA and other unions apparently locked out of paying their affiliation fees, and by extension, voting, the CAPA Board elected to waive affiliation fees for certain affiliates in the lead up to the 2022 ACM. This power is constitutionally available to the Board.
However, the validity of the waivers isn’t the issue for those affiliates who were prevented from voting. Rather, it is the rationale for such waivers. Smart expressed to Honi her frustration about the seemingly “arbitrary” criteria, upon which CAPA’s Board waived affiliation fees for some unions, but not others.
With waivers offered to some universities, but not others, those Honi spoke to considered the results of the 2022 election to be deeply distorted to the extent of being illegitimate.
In an email to affiliates, Shah said that the waivers were granted to some affiliates, because CAPA was “unable to deliver services [to them] in 2022” and that the waivers were a ‘thank you for [their] ongoing support”.
Solely on the basis of that explanation, it is unclear why some university unions were offered waivers and others weren’t.
Presumably, CAPA’s inability to deliver for affiliates in 2022 is a structural, organisation-wide, problem which would affect all affiliates. Alternatively, if Shah were to emphasise the justification of the waivers as symbols of gratitude, it is unclear based on this argument alone why SUPRA and other affiliates weren’t equally deserving of waivers. SUPRA, for instance, is a long-time CAPA member and, as the representative for one of the largest cohorts of postgraduate students nationally, usually pays substantial affiliation fees to CAPA.
Speaking with Honi, Shah said that “any accusation of deliberate exclusion of individuals or prospective member organisations will undoubtedly suit the political narrative of some but is flatly denied.” Honi is not making such an accusation.
With affiliates seemingly locked out of payment and thus voting at the same time that other institutions were granted waivers which effectively gave them voting rights, it seems fair that some of CAPA’s affiliates are deeply concerned about the Association’s direction.
But for Smart, the technicalities of affiliation and waivers aren’t even of the most concern. For them, the underlying issue is the spirit in which these disputes have arisen. Smart told attendees at the 2022 CAPA ACM that the denial of voting rights to long-term affiliates was the use of “procedures against solidarity, inclusion and representation.” After all, those principles ought to be the guiding principle of student unionism.
Despite being asked, Shah gave no clear response to this concern.
The first troubles with CAPA’s 2022 ACM arose well before the meeting even began.
Leroy-Dyer told Honi that CAPA members originally attempted to schedule an in-person ACM in December to “bring the organisation back together as a whole.” However, when the Board called a meeting to schedule the ACM, Leroy-Dyer says that they sent the notice for it at 10:40pm, for it to be held at 10:40pm the following night. 24 hours notice is the absolute minimum amount of time permitted to notify board members of a meeting, per CAPA’s constitution. Leroy-Dyer did not access her emails on that day, and was therefore unable to attend.
Despite the Chair’s absence, the Board proceeded with the meeting. In that meeting, an ACM was scheduled to take place exactly 21 days later, the absolute minimum notice permitted by CAPA’s constitution.
Shah told Honi that the “CAPA Board meetings are convened based on the majority availability of board members.
“Late evening meetings at 9 and 10 pm have not been unusual in 2022 to accommodate WA board members and those who work during the day.”
The date of the ACM itself quickly became a point of contention. An email notification of the ACM, sent by CAPA to affiliates, stated that the ACM would be held on Friday 24 November. However, the 24th of November was a Thursday. When Leroy-Dyer attempted to communicate this to the other board members, she says she was “completely ignored.”
Leroy-Dyer met with Shah on the day prior to the ACM, to mention that she would be representing CAPA at the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency conference in Melbourne at the time that the meeting had been scheduled.
Shah did not deny this when it was put to him.
As such, the CAPA Board held their ACM, with many long term members still unaffiliated and thus unable to vote, and without the Chair of the Board and the ACM being present.
Eventually, Leroy-Dyer was able to join the meeting, from an iPad in a corridor at the TEQSA conference. However, she was still not given control of the meeting.
For Smart, this manner of holding an ACM is deeply concerning, and in their opinion “further calls into question the legitimacy of the elections — even if they were conducted according to CAPA’s Constitution.”
Historically, CAPA has sourced approximately 98% of its revenue from affiliation fees, paid by university student unions. These affiliation fees are substantial. In 2022, CAPA received $120,000 in affiliation fees, with this figure typically even higher. With CAPA’s operating expenses typically around $200,000 per annum, these affiliation fees are the lifeblood of CAPA. Other revenue streams such as sponsorships are incapable of replacing this lost revenue.
This makes it incredibly alarming that in 2023, the CAPA Board has chosen not to seek the payment of affiliation fees from its members. In addition to the reality that affiliation fees are necessary to sustain CAPA’s activism and organisational capacity, CAPA has outstanding bookkeeping fees and has not renewed its insurance, as Phuah told affiliates in an email. It appears that without this revenue, CAPA will struggle to stay alive.
Smart told Honi that SUPRA has repeatedly contacted CAPA offering to pay affiliation fees, which are typically between twenty and forty thousands dollars. With individual university student unions willing to pay affiliation fees to a well-run national body, CAPA’s decision to not accept them seems to be without explanation.
In an email to affiliates on November 29, Shah said that “from the outset, the CAPA Board has been clear — we were unable to deliver services to our affiliate members who paid a fee in 2022. That’s why we waived the affiliation fee for those members for a further 12 months as a thank you for your ongoing support.”
When asked by Honi why CAPA could not provide services to its affiliates, he said that “the freeze on our accounts has caused enormous damage to our organisation’s ability in advocating and supporting our members in 2022,” referring to an ongoing contest over who controls CAPA’s bank accounts — Honi cannot report on this for legal reasons.
Shah insisted, in response to concerns CAPA could not survive without affiliation fees, that “notwithstanding the tragic year of 2022, our organisation is in a strong financial position. Less than 1.5% of the total 2022 affiliation fee collected has been spent.
“I do not believe you can, in good conscience, charge members for services they never received in 2022. That’s why the CAPA Board proudly resolved to waive the affiliation fee for 2022 members into 2023.”
ARE CAPA’S PROBLEMS STRUCTURAL?
Situating the crisis at CAPA in the context of its recent restructure begs the question: are the challenges facing CAPA inherent in its constitutional structure? Perhaps it is telling that the organisation which CAPA’s new structure was based on, PARSA, the ANU postgraduate student union, collapsed after ANU management refused to fund it citing poor governance.
When asked if CAPA’s woes were down to its structure, Leroy-Dyer said that “constitutional change is really needed. Structural change is really needed.
“Obviously what we have isn’t working and it’s crippling the organisation.”
However, Smart said that SUPRA “does not have any specific opinion about the structure,” instead attributing CAPA’s recent challenges to the personal approaches of some within its leadership structure.
It seems that a combination of both contextually specific and structural factors are the reason for CAPA’s recent challenges. A structure which led to the collapse of a major university’s postgraduate union, and has allowed such division and dysfunction to foment, requires review. However, it is unlikely that structural change would be a panacea. CAPA has long survived largely because of the efforts of underpaid but passionate Presidents and Office Bearers. This suggests that, to some extent, ensuring the right personnel are in charge is required to sustain national postgraduate student unionism in our post-Compulsory Student Unionism context.
Shah told Honi “I note that I have not received a cent of honoraria despite significant time and effort trying to rebuild CAPA as National President throughout 2022. It is a matter of fact that arising from my 2022 term, I was effectively the only contemporary National President in recent CAPA history to preside over the organisation on a pro-bono basis.”
IMPORTANCE OF CAPA AND POSTGRADUATE STUDENT ACTIVISM
CAPA’s collapse would have significant consequences for postgraduate students and student unionism more generally.
Leroy-Dyer and Smart insisted that they opposed any change which would see CAPA being subsumed within the National Union of Students (NUS) — a body currently focussed on undergraduate issues.
“The issues that postgraduates and undergraduates are similar but are sometimes very different, especially when it comes to HDRs (Higher Degrees by Research),” Smart said.
Leroy-Dyer echoed this sentiment, saying that “we’ve been two distinct organisations for a long time. In most universities there are two separate bodies.
“The way we go about things are very different and the needs of the constituents are very different.”
According to the 2022 Review into CAPA’s governance, CAPA has historically focussed on lobbying for all Austudy or ABSTUDY payments to be made to all full-time postgraduate students. It has also lobbied for an increase to PhD stipends, which are so small they were described as “unethical” by ANU Vice-Chancellor Btrian Schmidt in September. Without a dedicated body to fight for issues like these, which do not affect undergraduate students, postgraduate students would be short-changed.
Even where undergraduates and postgraduates have a shared interest — in fighting against course cuts, casualisation or in favour of concession opal cards for international students for example — maintaining two distinct national bodies is in the interest of postgraduates and undergraduates alike.
As Smart told Honi, “the strength of [separate undergraduate and postgraduate unions] is that we are separate organisations that can work in solidarity with each other” where student interests align.
Providing a differentiated, but united, student voice at the upcoming University Accords is an example that both Smart and Leroy-Dyer provided of the importance of separate undergraduate and postgraduate unions.
Aside from student interests, the situation at CAPA is important, if only for the fact that they receive government funding as a recognised representative of postgraduates nationally. In 2020, CAPA received $30,000 in Business Support Grants, $20,000 in ‘Cash Flow Boost’ payments and $40,000 in JobKeeper Payments. It is highly unlikely that such recognised government support would be given to more than one postgraduate student union, meaning CAPA, as it stands, is the body best placed to lead postgraduate student unionism nationally.
Shah did not express a view on this point when asked.
With both sides threatening legal action and promising to inform Federal Education Minister Jason Clare of the situation, the crisis at CAPA is unlikely to end soon, or amicably. Fortunately, Smart and Leroy-Dyer told Honi of university postgraduate unions’ desire to persevere and create new organisational structures, if CAPA were to collapse, or become defunct.
“We will continue to act in solidarity together,” Smart said.
The strife facing the national postgraduate student union, which represents as many as 400,000 students, should concern all students. The slow death of CAPA is not entirely unique. It follows after 15 years of student unions being underfunded and undervalued, despite their ability to transform education — and society — for the better. Without the institutional structures to lobby for a better world, it’s hard to see a future in which students aren’t left poor, overworked, and sent to graduate into a deeply inequitable society.
The full statement of Nidzam Shah Hussein, and the questions put to him by Honi are available here.
Additional reporting provided by Khanh Tran.
Disclaimer: Luke Mesterovic is a former member of Student Unity. Khanh Tran is a former member of Switch.