By Justine Cerna
Pelican Magazine caught up with UWA Student Guild President Amitabh Jeganathan to talk about the Guild, his impressions of the institution, and the student culture on campus.
What is your major?
I have just finished a Bachelor of Philosophy with a double major in Philosophy and Medical Science.Next year, I’ll begin an MD (Doctor of Medicine). I was meant to do Honours this year, but because Guild President is a full-time job, I can’t actually study.
How is your term going so far?
Good. Very different to what I expected. There’s just so much backroom stuff that happens, organisational aspects of the role, lots of meetings, and committees to keep in contact with. A usual day will start with an hour of reading emails and then three hours of back-to-back meetings…
Who are these meetings with?
Mostly with the university committees. Some of these committees are internal to the Guild such as the student experience committees and committees on equity and diversity. There is an agreement called the Partnership, which means that pretty much any committee the university has needs to have a student voice in it. They may pick a relevant guild rep, but I’m part of most of these committees.
Has anything surprised you about the position?
Yes, the shift from student life to occupying a full-time role has been interesting, and very surreal. When you’re a student, there’s always something more you can do like extra-study. You don’t ever fully switch off. I just always thought that was the way it was. However, now that I’m working full time, when I get home after work I’m just like – what do I do now? It’s very unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, other than that massive holiday you get after year twelve.
What drew you to run for Guild President?
I thought that the Guild could be doing a lot better in terms of delivering meaning and value for students. There is the sense that a lot of the work that gets done is the ‘one per cent’ stuff, and I think that more should be done for the vast majority of students. It’s still important that the ‘one per cent’ stuff gets done, but I think we can be doing more. It’s pretty telling that only 5-10 percent of students vote in the election – meaning that the majority of students are disengaged and don’t care about what we do, when realistically, I think they should. For me, a large part of it was that sort of cultural shift.
Also, I felt like it was an important statement to make that someone who actually cares (me) ran in the election- because my perception was that people who traditionally ran in guild elections do so because it’s good for their career, or for political reasons. That wasn’t a driver for me. When I ran, I didn’t think I was going to win. I did it more to make a statement about what I thought was important. Then I was just lucky, and Steven Bradbury-d my way through.
How is working with the University?
There is pressure to do things in a certain way, but one thing that’s important to me is the Guild’s relationship with the University. That is a big part of our history. Things haven’t always been good with us and the University, and it’s only through the hard work of a couple of Guild Presidents that we have the Partnership, and we are consulted on things now.
When working with the University, you work with a lot of different people, and they all have different agendas. Some of them are lovely and want what’s best for students, but others aren’t. Sort of figuring that out, walking that line, and getting those things to align is the main thing because my job at the end of the day is to serve the students, not to serve the University.
The Guild is more than 100 years old – the current council number 109th. How does the history of the Guild bear on your approach for the coming year?
Really interesting, because when I came into the role a lot of what I wanted to do was (in my mind) subverting what I thought the Guild was- that it could be different or more. Since my ascension as Guild President, I’ve read a lot of old files on the Guild such archival discussions and debates, and I’ve discovered how much history there is. What I found as I went through it all, was that my ideas which I thought were really out there, actually aren’t so unique. Something we’ve wanted to do this year; I’ll find a Guild Council from three years ago that was trying to do the same. We’re kind of caught in a massive cycle of people doing stuff. A large part of what I’m trying to do is to make sure that that cycle is more optimal because it doesn’t make sense for an organisation like the Guild, which has turnovers of millions of dollars every year, to not have organised institutional knowledge.
Is there anything being done to ensure some sort of continuity from council to council?
That is one of our priorities. We’re fortunate that this year we’re writing our strategic plan, which will be a five-year guide for what the Guild does over the next five years. Also, we will be looking at the way we do handovers, and the way terms are transitioned. I think a big part of what we do should be backed by research. Unfortunately, data relevant to certain issues is lost from year to year simply because it’s not contained in the handover. We’re looking at creating a student research hub that can produce reports on various issues –for instance, parking – which can then be handed to the next council. It’s about framing this work as handing a baton over to someone else with as much information as possible, so they have the best chance at running an effective term.
What things are you pleased to see happen on campus so far?
The Op-shop was really cool, I thought the opening of that was exciting. But also, O-Day. Just the amount of work that went into it, especially given COVID. It was really uncertain if it would go ahead at one point, so it was a really amazing moment to be a part of and see that. I’m also pleased with the changes made to Guild Elections Regulations, such as capping the ballot at Thirteen OGC Candidates per party. Those three are it for me.
Lastly, what is your impression of the student culture at UWA? How has it changed since your first week as a student?
I think UWA’s culture is one of sub-cultures. There are a lot of different sorts of tribes that care a lot about their own space. One clear example is the different clubs. Some of them have insular communities where they do everything together, and it’s like a family. Some people see that as cliquey, but that’s just part of the fabric, and it doesn’t detract from the good work that the groups do for their communities.
When I first came to UWA, like most people, I really bought into the culture, which has a sort of artificial social hierarchy, where it was important to be liked and have a lot of friends. However, at the end of my first year, I had a moment when I realised a lot of the relationships, I thought were meaningful did not have meaning, and from there, I did a complete 180 on how I approached Uni.
I started doing things I care about, like Artists Against Poverty. I played a lot of ultimate frisbees and reconnected with high school friends – being a part of those groups carried me through. Obviously, I got involved with the Guild, which is a sub-culture within itself with factions that care way too much about each other. I don’t really buy into that stuff, to be honest, but it’s just part of the system. My ideal would be that parties don’t exist.
If I was going to give advice to someone, it would be to reflect on your values and whether you feel like you belong in the sub-culture you’re in. The artificial social ‘hierarchy’ makes people feel – or it made me feel – as if there was only one valid university experience, which is definitely not the case.