Student Union Scandals Should Come As No Surprise

by on 3 December, 2015

liamwordpressAhead of the National Union of Students’ National Conference next week, confessions from Labor st
udent leaders that they wasted taxpayer-funded grants on holidays and booze highlight the cultural malaise that so often afflicts the most senior levels of the NUS and its affiliated unions, writes Liam Staltari.

In an extraordinary confession, senior Labor student and University of Sydney Union President Alisha Aitken-Radburn has taken to social media to admit to using a taxpayer-funded Start-Up Scholarship to finance an overseas trip – funds that were designed to assist disadvantaged students in covering the necessary costs of university study, such as the purchase of textbooks and computers. In the wake of this revelation, we’ve seen The Australian uncover other examples of students blowing these same funds on alcohol and other below-board purposes.

It’s positive to see that the Government has acted to transform the Start-Up Scholarships into loans that are focused squarely on the needs of students, thereby limiting the potential for such waste in the future. Nonetheless, this story offers just the latest insight into the corrosive culture that exists in the upper echelons of student unions throughout the nation, and especially in their so-called ‘peak body’, the NUS.

Such revelations raise further concerns when one considers that these same unions (which are predominantly controlled by elements of Young Labor and the far Left) aren’t simply limited to the use of taxpayer’s money. Each year, they administer millions of dollars in funding that is forcibly acquired from students via the levying of the Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF), while often lacking many of the strict processes that hold corporations, charities and trade unions to account.

Yet there should be no surprise in talks of wild parties and trips to Phuket – this history of waste and mismanagement comes courtesy of a right-to-rule mentality that all too often starts at the very top.

Indeed, it’s no shock to see the NUS’ Labor Left-aligned National President, Rose Steele, vigorously attacking the Government – and her own party – for their changes to the Start-Up scheme.  Where normal students might be perturbed by open admissions of waste, Miss Steele appears unmoved. Given that she has previously been criticised for taking diving tours while on student-funded work trips, it’s not difficult to see why many of these individuals have little choice but to look the other way. At the end of the day, this conduct may not be too dissimilar from their own.

When those who purport to be student leaders get their priorities so egregiously wrong, it falls to others to pick up the slack. In this regard, recent debates surrounding the SSAF couple with long-awaited moves to scrap Parallel Import Restrictions in highlighting success stories for genuine student advocacy.

With a chorus of guild apparatchiks showing so little regard for the taxpayer’s dollar, serious questions must be asked about the fate of funds acquired via the SSAF itself. The recent success of Liberal Students in lobbying the Senate crossbench to bring forward a motion calling for reform to the SSAF offers a clear contrast, demanding genuine accountability in the raising and spending of student money.

Similarly, with the termination of Parallel Import Restrictions on the horizon, projections suggest that the price of certain text books will be slashed by some 30% on university campuses throughout the country. Yet again, years of tireless Liberal Student activism have made their mark.

On both counts, we see student leaders and activists placing the interests of their student bodies first, and working to secure reforms that will leave more money in the wallets of everyday students, and less in the coffers of those who might misuse it.

Many on the Left will decry these moves as counter to students’ interests, but it’s at this point that we should look to the examples of student unions that choose a different path. The 2015 tenure of the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) Student Guild offers a case in point, recording drastic increases in its provision of educational assistance, while not taking a single cent of SSAF money.

The moral principle bound up in QUT’s example is clear – if universities laud their students as the best and brightest, then they should trust them enough to make decisions about whether the services provided by student unions are of a quality that deserves their money. Where the actions of the USyd Union President defy common sense, this simple observation certainly passes the ‘pub test’.

Urgent action is needed to stamp out the culture of waste and mismanagement that taints some of the highest levels of student leadership in this country, and that starts with those who refuse to accept scandals such as this as the norm. Next week will see the National Union of Students convene at Melbourne’s Mannix College, and it is there that Liberal Students will push for greater accountability and a genuine student say in how their money is spent.

Liam Staltari is the President of the WA Union of Liberal Students, a former UWA Ordinary Guild Councillor and a Delegate to the 2015 National Conference of the National Union of Students.

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