Recent events have put a spotlight on the functionality and relevance of the National Union of Students, with criticism leveled at the organisation critics and members alike following the latest NUS Education Convention (EdCon).
Approximately $20,000 of Arc’s annual budget goes toward paying affiliation fees to the National Union of Students (NUS).
The NUS in Australia is the peak body of student representatives, lobbying the government on behalf of all students in the country. Each Australian university has a number of delegates, depending on the fees they pay, who attend the yearly elections to decide on office bearers.
Donherra Walmsley, NUS President believes that the union plays an important role in student activism. “The NUS is the peak representative student body on a national level,” she said.
“It runs national campaigns, lobbies the state and fed government on issues that affect students such as youth allowance, cost of higher education, rent, teaching and learning quality, provides support to individual campuses on campus specific issues such as staff and course cuts, and negotiating the SSAF. We teach how to run campaigns and get national media involved in student related issues as well as offer general advice to the campuses.”
However, the transparency and usefulness of the NUS has once again been challenged. Evan Gray, former UTS student councillor and NUS Queer Officer candidate, told Tharunka he was unimpressed by the lack of transparency regarding decisions made by the organisation.
“One of the problems with NUS is that it’s extraordinarily opaque and there is very little accountability in regards to spending or decisions. No minutes are taken and no media coverage is allowed at any of the meetings. There are also no report-backs,” he said.
David Stone, member of the Queensland University of Technology social justice collective, confirmed that no recording devices are ever allowed in the meetings or conventions, and mentioned more sinister occurrences. “People have been physically threatened before around election time.”
He said delegates had been locked in a room with their phones removed from them for over seventeen hours while they were prepared for voting.
Gray said that, although delegates themselves are unhappy with the way things are run in the NUS, many are hopeful that things will improve. “Part of the problem is that a lot of NUS members hope it will get better.”
“Almost all of them hate it as well but are optimistic. Most pro-NUS members will tell you that they were put into place before the conventions even occurred,” he said.
The NUS is often criticized for being run in an overly political manner. “About 65% of delegates are from Labor factions, those from the Liberal factions are not allowed to speak and are exiled to the corner,” he said.
“If you’re not a member of either of those factions, you get left out completely.”
However, Ms Walmsley believes that the nature of the union is the reason for the political preoccupation of the system. “I think that an organisation that exists to campaign largely around political issues is always going to be run by those who are heavily involved with their student politics and who have a desire to change things through that avenue, on that level, so naturally it will be political.”
Many people are also unhappy with the way office-bearers are elected. “Office bearers aren’t really elected,” said Gray. “There is a sweetheart deal signed almost every year since 1988 which means that certain positions are just traded around the powerful political factions.”
Ms Walmsley feels the election process is already quite fair. “Office bearers are elected at the annual conference by delegates from campuses around the country,” she said.
“Delegates are elected by the students on their campuses, so I don’t really think you can get much more democratic than that.”
Osman Faruqi, NSW State Branch President of the NUS, believes that there is scope to renew the original idea of the union without discarding the current systems in place.
“Of course I think aspects of NUS can be improved – I think it’s important to focus on rebuilding a broad student movement that goes beyond lobbying politicians and I think NUS can be more transparent and improve some of its internal processes,” he said.
“But that’s why I engage with the national union – to improve it by working with students and delegates from campuses across the country.”
“As someone who has engaged with NUS for a number of years, as a campus President, NUS delegate, and currently as the NSW State Branch President, I believe it plays an important role in the student movement. A strong national union is critical to students across Australia as it can unite students around campaigns on quality education, funding student services and improving student welfare.”