The National Union of Students (NUS) is the national representative body for tertiary students in Australia. Founded in 1987, it currently has twenty members, made up of representatives from each of the participating universities, and claims to represent one million students across the country.

Despite this apparent importance, the NUS typically receives very little attention in Western Australia, and often flies under the radar at our own UWA Guild elections. Very little is done to campaign on the NUS and UWA students hear little about its work throughout the year.

This election season has been different. The Guild received some highly critical reports from our 2022 NUS delegates. In response, Launch has campaigned on disaffiliation from the Union, while other candidates have promoted NUS-specific platforms, with some even promising reform.The NUS, for once, has become a hot topic, and Pelican are here to help you navigate it.

How does the NUS work?

The NUS is a shadowy organisation, not because there is little to report on, but because it’s not very transparent.

Each member university pays a hefty affiliation fee to remain part of the Union. The NUS is governed by a board of student executives, some paid, some unpaid, and its policy for the year is supposedly decided at the “democratic” National Conference (NatCon). At NatCon, delegates from all affiliated institutions meet for four days to discuss policy. NatCon sees hundreds of motions debated, which are put together to form the National Platform, which in turn decides what campaigns the NUS will run for the year.

In theory, the NUS is required to publish its decisions. However, the National Executive has not released any minutes since September 2022, the Union has not publicly published its Annual Report or its National Platform, (the purpose of paying for the NUS), since 2021, and the minutes of NatCon have not been released since 2020. Office Bearer reports are currently locked behind a password-protected Google Drive link (NUS official website).

While the NUS has achieved several admirable goals in its nearly forty-year history, the current poorly-run state of the Union is what has led to such controversy here at UWA.

How much does it cost?

The headline figure from Launch, which you may have seen on their vividly-red flyers, is that the NUS costs us $30,000 per annum. This, of course, is a lot of money.

Last week, several other candidates denied this claim to Pelican, asserting that the NUS costs somewhere between $12,000 and $17,000. However, the Guild Finance Department confirmed to Pelican that NUS costs for 2022 were actually $30,420.92—slightly higher than Launch claimed. As Launch’s group agent Cooper Mason points out, this doesn’t include the cost of running the NUS elections, which the Guild contracts out to the Western Australian Electoral Commission.

The NUS experience

Outside of UWA, opinions on the NUS are easy to come across, and they aren’t particularly positive about the Union or the behaviour of its delegates.

Honi Soit is the campus newspaper for The University of Sydney, and Woroni is the publication for The Australian National University—Pelican’s cousins, really. These two publications have made up the vast majority of NatCon coverage in recent years and they’ve both been scathing of the NUS.

Honi Soit described NatCon as a nightmare, or hell. Woroni called it “worse than the worst student politics debate,” with “all the trappings of democracy, and no substance.” 

While all of UWA’s electoral groups (except Launch) are running NUS candidates, and even some Independents, these groups are essentially irrelevant on the national stage. Delegates have a habit of joining factions—the current factions are National Labor Students (NLS:Labor Left), Student Unity (Labor Right), Socialist Alternative (SAlt), the Grassroots Independents (a broad alliance of unaffiliated delegates), and real Independents. However, besides Left Action, who affiliate with Socialist Alternative (and who, according to group agent Alevine Magila, will again if elected this year), almost all UWA delegates and proxies have been Independents at recent NatCons.

NLS, Unity, and SAlt all “bind” their delegates’ votes—in other words, the faction decides how it will vote, and delegates fall in line. This leads to the situation Woroni describes: at NatCon, a grand debate is held, but the votes have already been cast and everyone knows the outcome well ahead of time.

Although you might expect that NatCon would be a boring ceremony, it is anything but. Reportedly, personal abuse was hurled across the conference in 2022, and current NUS president Bailey Riley received attention for her excessive use of the term “bitch.” Upon being named for her behaviour, Riley flipped off the crowd and called them “cunts.” SAlt has picked up a reputation for screaming at other delegates, and frequently threatening to pull quorum from the conference and prevent it from occurring. Unity has a habit of chanting unsavoury slogans such as “Dig it [coal] up, ship it out.” Some of our own delegates were kicked off a chartered bus in 2022 when factional leaders declared they were not welcome. Some were prevented from speaking on, or moving, motions due to administrative issues; all of our delegates acknowledged that they had marginal or no influence at NatCon (Guild Council Reports).

Honi Soit refers to a practice of some delegates picking up and eating the paper upon which motions they disagree with are written. These papers are seized in what seem to border on brawls: one of UWA’s 2022 NUS delegates, Melani de Alwis (STAR) reports delegates walking away from the conference scratched and bruised, and humorously notes one delegate said they “weren’t feeling well after a full day of eating paper.” Woroni describes the conference chair as “blatantly biased,” and that factionalism is so strong delegates cannot even entertain logical criticism of those on their side. Particularly concerning last year were the reports of the “mismanagement” of $10,000 by senior officeholders.

UWA’s criticism of the NUS

Cooper isn’t impressed with this behaviour, stating he is

“astonished that other Guild parties and candidates are happy to support an organisation that is so toxic and where conduct occurs that would not be accepted at any other organisation or any other union in Australia. The conduct wouldn’t be acceptable at the UWA Student Guild and there is no reason why the NUS should accept it.”

Launch argue that the NUS has failed on numerous policy fronts—they failed to prevent massive HECS indexation, failed to lower the age of Youth Allowance, and have had almost no influence on the Education Accords—“It’s clear that the NUS is not taken serious by policy makers and the government,” says Mason.

Launch stressed to Pelican that they do not actually oppose the idea of a national student union in principle—they specifically oppose the NUS, which they see as fundamentally broken. They point to a laundry list of complaints: the NUS’ various policy failures, persistent allegations of embezzlement by officeholders, the huge expenses associated with attending the conferences, and the frankly disgusting and shameful behaviour of delegates. “Take your pick,” Cooper says, “which one do you find most outrageous?”

Launch isn’t alone in their criticism. Holly Mellor (SPARK), who was a 2022 NUS proxy, officially recommended disaffiliation in her report to Guild Council. In fact, it was universal amongst all 2022 UWA delegates and proxies that they found their experience at the NUS to be negative.

Kaelin Abrahams (SPARK), who is running for the NUS this year, remarked to Guild Council upon reading the reports that the NUS was “a dysfunctional union with a façade of impartiality and discussion.” He has since promised that he will work on accountability within the NUS if elected. Like Kaelin, other candidates still support the NUS while acknowledging its failures.

Support for the NUS

STAR is a pro-NUS group, but acknowledges that the NUS is “imperfect,” and describes the behaviour of delegates as “extremely disappointing to see.”

Will Ho, STAR’s agent and a candidate for OGC and NUS, said that the NUS was important, as “a forum that puts student unions across the country in contact with each other,” and that the NUS is UWA’s voice to the federal government. He specifically refers to the NUS’ advocacy on promoting a fairer HECS system, by rolling back changes that would have revoked Commonwealth Supported Placements (CSPs) from students failing more than half their units, and this year’s increase in the rate of Youth Allowance and Austudy. Will argues that the money is well-spent, and there are other ways to improve the Guild’s financial position.

STAR recommend a variety of reforms, including more impartial Conference chairs, shorter sitting days, better standing orders with stronger enforcement, increased transparency, and better publication of NUS work to increase scrutiny. STAR also support NUS delegates having a more central place on Guild Council, attending meetings and tabling reports to detail their work. It is unclear how STAR would go about implementing these much-needed reforms. UWA commands a small minority of votes on the Conference floor and would be unable to unilaterally change the structure of the NUS.

SPARK state that the NUS have some “obvious glaring faults,” and argue these stem from “factionalism and political in-fighting.” Like STAR, they support continuing affiliation despite these faults. SPARK argue that without the NUS, the Guild could not tackle national issues such as HECS indexation and student welfare payments, and since these issues are common to students across the nation, they require a coordinated national response.

Presidential candidate Indi Creed said that she followed the 2022 conference closely, and was disappointed that delegates who were meant to be representing students on a national level were instead “throwing derogatory comments at each other and utilising their platform to be, quite simply, petty and rude.” Indi notes that SPARK is particularly concerned by reports of embezzlement in 2022.

Ultimately, SPARK attribute the NUS’s failings to “strict factional behaviour and subsequent infighting, petty dealing, and a consistent lack of focus on what the body is actually supposed to deliver for tertiary students.” They note that UWA stands to gain little from engaging in the factional system, and that WA is often neglected in national campaigns and receives very little resources compared to the eastern states. They suggest that UWA delegates should rise above factional lines and speak out as independent voices to hold the NUS to account.

Meanwhile, GLOBAL’s Archit Menon, who is running as a candidate for the NUS and as an OGC, suggests that increasing accountability will result in a cultural shift at the NUS, and make it “a much safer and [more] productive space.” Like SPARK, Archit states that the NUS still holds value for coordinating students at a national level.

Parham Bahrami, an Independent candidate for the NUS, is the only NUS candidate this year who has actively participated in a previous Conference. Parham called NatCon “a shocking experience,” and “an immature slugfest of party politics, verbal abuse, and shocking political hypocrisy.” However, he remarked on the potential of the NUS to “ do great work for all students,” and said it is “essential” UWA continues to participate.

Launch argue that other Guild candidates aren’t criticising the NUS or calling for disaffiliation because it’s become “a stepping-stone for wannabe career politicians.”

Left Action, for once, agree with Launch, stating that the NUS “is dominated by careerist and right-wing Labor students.” They believe that the NUS has become a lobby group instead of an activist body, but that withdrawing is “a totally reprehensible, right-wing position […] out of the question for any progressive student on campus.”

Left Action also argue that the NUS “is fundamental to student unionism in Australia,” and not only coordinates but leads student movements. Leaving, they claim, would leave UWA students isolated from other students. They argue that all students have the same basic interests regardless of what university they study at. Left Action state “the problems of the student movement will be solved inside the movement, not outside of it,” and that “unfortunately, some of the 2022 NUS delegates do not understand this.”

When contacted by Pelican about their position on the NUS, a RATS spokesperson stated that the National University of Samoa is a “noble body” that has their “full support.”

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