“National” Union of Students: A National Disgrace

by on 23 December, 2014


University of Western Australia Student Rebecca Lawrence discusses how the Australian National Union of Students fails students – and is in the process of destroying itself:

I have always been outspoken about my views on the National Union of Students. The organisation is neither national nor united, and certainly doesn’t represent the best interests of students. It is no secret that I, along with most ordinary students in this country, believe that university student unionists have no right pay tens of thousands of other students’ dollars to the NUS every year in affiliation fees, much less pay for their own flights and accommodation on junkets several times a year. Yet, year after year, our voices go seemingly unheard and the NUS marches forward, as deaf to the concerns of ordinary students as ever, just as lefty-charged and anti-democracy as its predecessor was until the day it died (the Australian Union of Students, which dissolved under the leadership of 1983 President Julia Gillard due to uncontrollable levels of debt, disunity and corruption).

Or does it? Despite what one would expect from a NATIONAL Union of Students, the NUS only managed to achieve an affiliation rate of around 50% this year – of Australia’s 39 universities, only 20 affiliated to NUS in 2014 (not one university in Queensland affiliated). As the NUS’ income is almost solely dependent upon the money it collects in affiliation fees, this meant that the Union racked up a deficit of over $95,000 over the last 12 months. A leaked audit shows that the deficit over the last three years amounted to $366,360. Unsurprising as this is (the Union is run by Labor students), this fact should come as a grave concern to all students, who are forced to pay for the NUS’ spending through their compulsory student union fees (the Student Services and Amenities Fee, or SSAF – around $280 per year, per student).

Perhaps the most surprising thing, however, that came out of December 2014’s NUS National Conference was the genuine feeling (from amongst even the Union’s strongest supporters) that the registration fee was simply not worth it anymore. Pat Dollard (University of Melbourne), who had endorsement from much of the broad Left caucus as well as the national Sustainable Energy Network for the position of 2015 NUS National Environment Officer, posted a statement after his defeat at this years’ conference, saying “If this is what NUS has been reduced to – four days of insults, profanities, and sectarianism – then perhaps NUS deserves to be destroyed” and “as Student Associations meet in the coming months, it (NUS affiliation) will be a topic for discussion across the country”. Furthermore, since this years’ conference, a group called “The Blacademy” has arisen as “a national collective for Indigenous students” who believe that NUS no longer adequately represents them. Their founding statement begins with “We, the undersigned Indigenous students, register our formal protest at the events which have occurred at the National Union of Students’ (NUS) National Conference… we call for the broader disaffiliation of member unions” and later “as a group of Indigenous student leaders, we recommend to all campuses affiliated to the National Union of Students that it be disaffiliated and defunded immediately”. None of the students quoted here are the natural ally of the Liberal Students, yet it seems we have found a common enemy – the unrepresentative, wasteful and irresponsible group who lead the National Union of Students.

Allow me to highlight one last thing –the money that student unions pay in “affiliation fees” to the NUS every year does not actually buy affiliation to the Union. According to the NUS constitution, the only way for a campus to disaffiliate is to hold a referendum where an absolute majority of voters declare that they wish for their campus to cease to be affiliated to the NUS. The annual “affiliation fees” only buy student unionists from each campus their votes on floor at the December National Conference –that is, votes on motions throughout the conference and, more importantly, the coming year’s state and national office-bearers. If, one year, a university campus saved themselves the affiliation fee (which can be up to $100,000 per year), their students would still be able to attend the conference and participate, they would just lose the ability to vote on national office bearer positions. Therefore, there is no legitimate reason for a student union to actually fund the exorbitant expenditure of this small group of Labor-politicians-in-training – unless, of course, the university student guilds are also run by left-wing student politicians who wish to use other students’ money to buy themselves influence on a national union level.

Time and time again, student groups have waged war on the NUS. It baffles me how an organisation can still claim it represents all students when it passes motions to “condemn neoliberalism” and “ban Liberal students from speaking on floor”, when it refuses to pass motions to support the abolition of parallel import restrictions on textbooks (which would significantly decrease the cost of textbooks for everyday students), when it orchestrates and funds violent protests against senior politicians, when it actively campaigns in favour of a compulsory tax on students (the SSAF), when it fails to combat violence and abuse at its own National Conferences and when it funnels money into Labor party campaigns, rather than engaging with ordinary students. However, its sharply declining affiliation rate and equally sharply increasing debt, coupled with the recent emergence of competing left-wing organisations, suggest that the NUS is doing a fine job of destroying itself.

Rebecca Lawrence is a second year where she was a 2014 UWA Student Guild Councillor and is in her second term as an NUS Delegate. Rebecca also holds the National Publications portfolio for the Australian Liberal Students’ Federation. She is currently undertaking an internship at the Lithuanian Free Market Institute as part of the Mannkal Foundation’s 2015 Scholarship Program.


2 thoughts on ““National” Union of Students: A National Disgrace

  1. Hello Rebecca,
    I was an employee of one of the private firms based on the Crawley campus between 2005 and 2008. This was around the time that membership in the student union became optional rather than mandatory. Once the compulsion to join was removed a large number of students around the country said adieu and didn’t look back.
    UWA was perhaps the only campus where union membership rose. The UWA Guild president at the time put this fact around freely whenever he got the chance. What was not so well advertised was the means by which he boosted membership – he opened it to one and all. I could have joined if I’d been so inclined. The courier drivers could have joined – I know for sure that one did, mainly for the $2 coffees in the caf.
    I wonder now what happened to the president. I haven’t heard anything of him for several years. With that much front I expected him to become a prominent up and comer in the ALP.

  2. In my day, the NUS failed to condemn the Hawke/Keating government for introducing HECS at the 1993 election. There was a protest against the HECS of course before the election campaign started but they just were incapable of campaigning against their Labor mates.

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