Why I have no respect for the University of Sydney Union

For anyone that knows me, you know that I believe the University of Sydney Union is a joke. It’s a joke because of what it does, what it fails to do, and how it is organised. But you pay around $100 a year to fund it, and it’s the self-declared centre of student life, and you realise it has a $20 million budget, and that it’s the first non-academic thing most students see when they first enter university, and it’s not so funny anymore.

Four years after starting University, and what was once an organisation I admired for its bars and student societies and democratic control is now what I am most disappointed in after finishing my studies and facing graduation. What follows is a list of my frustrations with the Union.

Corporatisation of our student life: why our student union is not about students and not a union

The Union is a huge organisation. As mentioned previously, it has a $20 million budget. It is the biggest student service provider in the country. It has a giant presence on campus. But it is a corporation, not a union. That in itself is not a big deal: it’s called a union because it used to be a ‘debating union’ and never attempted to be a representative body (which is the Students’ Representative Council). However, it fails in the fact that it isn’t even in any definition a union because it has nothing to do with the students it claims to be an organisation for. You can feel it in its slick, glossy marketing – I’m not arguing for a radical anarchist culture, but I’m arguing against an aesthetic that sees students as consumers. Look at how the ‘staff’ runs all the festivals (because the student directors are really just figureheads – I get to this issue of ‘staff’ control later). Humanitarian and Interfaith Weeks have little to do with meaningful engagement with any issues; nope, but they do feature rock climbing walls and haunted houses and fun on the grass! Any manifestation of anything deeper than a puddle is tokenistic, at best. Or Verge? Verge is probably the most creative thing the Union does every year, but the corporate nature of the Union manages to mangle it up into something that condenses into a small gathering of people inside a dome where people do stupid shit for a few days.

Because that’s literally what the Union is there for: doing stupid shit for a few days. That’s what they think we all want all the time. Onesies and ball pits. It looks nice on a brochure, and it’s a strategy universities have used for some time. Do stuff that looks nice to prospective donors. (And the Union has donors – the alumni.) Have parties for the sole purpose of churning out photos, 80% of which are the same people, photos of people being quirky and ironic. Infantilise students until they look cute in your photos.  Do stuff sometimes in order to maintain the legitimacy of your existence. I thought University was a place for growth, for doing stupid shit but still expanding your horizons, not for regressing backwards. I did grow throughout uni outside of lecture rooms and tutorials, but no thanks to the Union, except that it happens to own Manning and Hermman’s. Every point of growth was due to the hard work of students working together, either for activism or for fun, and creating stuff, with little facilitation from the bureaucracy of the Union.

That’s because themes like ‘compulsory fun’ don’t work: fun is something that organically happens, that you generate yourself and with others, but the bright minds in the Union bureaucracy think it’s something only professionals understand; then they’re sincerely shocked when it turns out none of it is fun anyway. Because for managers ‘fun’ is just another commodity to be bought and sold, another commodity to be glossed up. But I didn’t come to uni just to be told how to think less and consume more. Where is the intellectualism the Union should strive to facilitate? It’s chewed up, deformed, sucked of all its import, and locked up behind the closed doors of Debating. Where is the student creativity that should be sponsored and enabled by the Union? It was crushed because it came into conflict with the domineering logic of the Union bureaucracy, that all aesthetics and art should be imposed top-down by the professionals in the Marketing Department, because fuck creativity – all it does is compete with the commercial strategies of the USU anyway. Manning used to be the centre of heavy metal in Sydney – now it’s a place for YouTube parties, audience: 0.

Anything students do is aided only in order to further the brand power of the USU; altruism died a long time ago in this ‘union’. And it’s one thing for the Union to immerse itself in the bourgeois culture of three course meals and banquets and champagne, but it’s another for it to actively patronise and deaden the minds of students, shutting most away from its exclusive events while flicking them some canapés, so it can continue its corporate strategy of having a monopoly over anything vaguely artistic that happens on campus.

And where is this more evident than at O-Week? O-Week was really fun in first year, mainly because I was with friends and there was this whole sea of clubs and societies to join for a small fee. And a lot of these clubs were ones that I engaged with and grew with. But let’s be honest – that’s not what the Union is about. It placates us with bar tabs while selling out to Coke and Vodafone and Cosmopolitan and the police by giving them large stalls that shadow all others, giving them rights to spruik their content while forcing student stalls to be silent. And if you’re not a Union club but still involved in student life? Pay up. Pay up the same fee as a corporation. That’s why when I was in the SRC I wasn’t able to get a separate stall for the Welfare Department or for Honi Soit, because it costs a fortune. It’s why the Postgraduate Association could not have a stall. But thank fuck fucking Coca Cola has their own stall.

It’s obviously not the 70s anymore, but I’m sad that the Union that calls itself progressive has decided to amalgamate into the consumerist bullshit we’re faced with everyday outside of University.

The iron cage of bureaucracy: why the management of the Union controls the whole operation

Nothing is more misleading in the Union, other than the term ‘union’, than its constant referral to the ‘staff.’ We’re meant to sympathise with the staff, meant to accept their autonomy in their work, meant to understand their grave concerns over being mentioned in tweets, meant to not discuss them at all because they’re the staff, the workers, doing the hard yards for the USU. And I do sympathise with staff – the hundreds of workers who run the shops, the bars, clean the buildings, and do the banal administrative work in the offices. But that’s not what the Board Directors mean when they refer to staff – they’re referring to the management. Bosses. But somehow, they’ve gotten away with being presented as the underdog in the USU, as kind hearted and gentle servants just trying to make an honest wage. It’s how they get away with their informal control of the Union. But there’s no comparison between a janitor and the CEO, Andrew Woodward, who makes a large salary secret to the student population who pays him, and gets a paid trip around the United States to learn more about how other student unions work (“let me Google that for you”). The USU distorts the reality of industrial relations to shield the management from any criticism, because they’re ‘staff’. It’s the kind of discourse that allows their HR manager claim that she is the representative of staff on board, when managers work for the corporation, and not for workers. You should have a trade union delegate at board meetings, not HR, which, remember, stands for ‘human resources’, not the most syndicalist of titles.

Students should control student organisations, not a bureaucracy that directs its vision. The amount of anecdotes from people involved in the Union (not just Board Directors) that points at how the staff impose directives on how publications, programs, and the policies of the board are executed is astonishing. Take for instance the Marketing Department: it completely ignored what the Board said should be the Participation Award for Being Involved in a Student Election (sausage sizzle) and instead decided to say it’d be free drink vouchers. They got away with it, and now that the USU is consolidating all their communications (i.e. removing most of their Facebook pages) and shifting BULL Magazine online, they’ll have more and more power to constantly feed you the nonsense they want to deliver, nonsense that reflects the values of management, who, like most managers, are conservative. So it’s no surprise when Louisa Stylian, head of marketing and communications, uses Tom as an example of ‘what not to be’ when training student program directors in how to use social media – management control, not student control.

Not just that, but the staff control the procedures of how Board works, in terms of being able to just hinder Directors by delaying things at Working Groups, those things that decide other things before the meeting. They also have a privileged position with the Executive, that other Bureaucratic Structure that controls the Board. This isn’t necessarily just the fault of the staff – it’s to do with the culture of weakness and silence that plagues the board. Some people want to speak up, but when a majority don’t, then what’s the point? Most people on Board don’t have the courage to call the CEO into line, or to admonish managers they dislike – and unsurprisingly, they want to get on the CEO’s good side because it’s fairly clear that he plays favourites. Anyway, when the Board meets informally before meetings and everyone knows how everyone thinks, and most people agree with each other out of mob mentality, then there is no point to dissent, really, because it’ll do shit all.

Clique culture: why our student organisation cares more about itself than the student body

It means shit all unless they’re on Executive, and that’s only if they’re well liked and they ‘fit in’. People who claim to be independent simply aren’t. They’re a political network of friends and sycophants. This isn’t an indictment on individuals who claim to be independent, but rather, a culture of entitlement and inclusivity. It’s the cliquey-ness and pseudo-meritocracy that organises the Union into a place that fears transparency, into a place that marginalises those who dare to speak out, a place that doesn’t invite their Vice President to their Annual Dinner. It’s why the Union continually tries to find ways to further reduce our ability to know what is happening. It’s why hours of monthly board meetings (the only public board meetings) are put in camera, why you can’t attend any Executive meeting or Working Group meeting or informal board meetings (where everything is decided before the Board meeting just so they know how everyone feels and so there isn’t too much debate in public lest people think the board isn’t undivided). It’s why the Union can hold a few member forums to placate some members, while discussing whether or not to automatically move in camera if a discussion can embarrass or hurt the Union’s reputation. It’s why minutes come late, why it’s difficult to find out why a club was shut down, why you can’t see documents being discussed at public meetings, why you have to come in right on time at the beginning of a meeting to ask questions, and then you only have a few minutes, and you can’t ask questions after you’ve heard things being discussed at the meeting, and why the USU’s commercial operations are held tighter than state secrets.

It’s why every year candidates run on promises they know they can not keep; policies so vacuous that it almost appears as though they’re subtly mocking the entire election itself, as if its giggling that it knows how utterly fruitless it is and how purposeless Union democracy is and that it will wither away as soon as the candidate becomes a director and the management lower their boot on to their necks and tells them how things are to be run.

It’s why the USU is more concerned with looking like a big happy fucking family while inside it’s a hollow and morbid institution. It’s a corporation that loves its own kind – the University Corporation. It’s why it has unelected directors – the Senate Appointed Directors. It’s why the CEO is chummy with the Vice Chancellor, and happy to throw the Vice President of the Union under the bus by snitching him out in order to maintain the pristine conservatism of the Union. Fuck that students got smashed by cops, we’ll keep our knowledge of their operations a secret; fuck the picket line, we’ll break it. It’s also why the Vice Chancellor is happy to say that this Union Board is the closest he’s ever been to, and that his only problem was that they gave – under pressure from students – free food to strikers. Because the Union is meant to be a neutral organisation, management from both sides claim, one that is apolitical, and should have nothing to do with academic affairs, but rather to just continue providing students with The Best Possible Student Life in Australia, produced on an assembly line and shoved down your throat. But the CEO and, implicated, the Board, knows what it is doing when it betrays students like this – it defends the status quo of University management power.

And that’s why they hide their faces full of shame or malice with the niceties of student life – I mean, did you know that the USU did well in Debating! Or that we’re going to the Quidditch World Cup! Or that we have a Ukulele Society! It’s why they have their exclusive dinners, a circle jerk for the campus aristocracy and their masters. But forget that they take your money and put $500,000 into a kickstarter company, or into Intercollege sport, or into sexist or racist parties.

It’s this intersection of bourgeois and infant-hipster culture that really creates the cliquey meaninglessness of Union-endorsed student life. Like I discussed earlier, it creates all these scenarios where thought is either shunned or commodified to increase one’s entitlement. There’s no point thinking in a jumping castle, and while debating is a pretty noble activity, and there are many good people who do debating, USU debating culture is just rife with narcissists from a well-groomed background who don’t really think about things, but rather, regurgitate what they’ve heard while learning to pretend to think. And this is why USU culture is devoid of value; it’s why people tolerate some disgusting people who rise up the ranks of the campus aristocracy. When you’re constantly told to be apolitical, when you’re constantly surrounded by the nihilism of consumerism, when you’re finally let into the clique, then who cares if you’re with horrible people? Because fuck it, there’s no future in morality, right? And I don’t even mean student politicians I have beef with – I mean people who just spew racist and sexist shit, constantly, but are never called up on it, because morality is for the proles, and these celebrities are too tight knit to punish their own, because you never punish your own, because they are an asset to you, whether it be that they’re a good debater or because they have good parties or because they’re connected.

Oh, and don’t forget that that the USU simply closed the entire position of the Sustainability Officer, after doing applications and interviews for it, and then reopened it again! This is despite good activists having gone for it…Hmmm…hopefully more C&S types go for it now instead, eh!

This is the end

There was a campaign a while ago called ‘Are You With Us?’, run by the Union in order to galvanise support against a potential University takeover. While the University ended up winning control over venue hiring, the Union was for the most part saved. But to what extent? The Union is run like a business, despite its not-for-profit status and its mandated requirement to be a student-run organisation. To a degree, the University got what it wanted – a likeminded corporation on its side on campus, just like Sydney University Sports & Fitness.

This isn’t a total expose on everything wrong with the Union, but it’s a total expose of how utterly disappointed I am in it. My relationship to the Union fizzled out, whimpering, as irrelevant things tend to do. I lost my ACCESS card a month or so ago, and all I really lost was a discount card. I have too little energy for it to be wasted on false nostalgia for a decrepit and shameful Useless Scab Union.

Rafi Alam


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