Captured Student Councils: Student Democracy in Decline?

Parking tickets and pizzas for Parisian workers on strike. Ever wondered where your ‘Student Services and Amenities Fee’ goes? Well, now you know. Needless to say many students, myself included, have at one point or another scratched their head at that hundred-something dollar SSAF. The Student Representative Council (SRC) is the ‘peak representative body for undergraduate students at the University of Sydney.’ It exists to ‘defend and advance the interests of USyd students.’ Well, that is indeed, as the name implies, what the SRC would reasonably be expected to do. However, an inquiry into some of their actions paints a rather different picture. On closer examination it becomes clear that the SRC has consistently failed to represent the interests of its 35,000 undergraduate students. When political agendas, party loyalties, and factional interests are prioritised over student welfare, the increasing distance of the SRC from the student body it claims to represent becomes apparent. For some years now, the SRC has come under the influence of the Left, with the National Labor Students (NLS) seeing a number of extended periods at the helm. This has meant that the council has effectively been, at times, controlled by bona fide international socialists.  It must be said, of course, that the SRC is democratically elected by the undergraduate body at the university. This does not mean, however, that we should not question the actions and motives of the council.

 

The SRC operates with a budget of approximately $1.8 million dollars, derived almost in its entirety from this biannual student contribution. The reason why students support this institution is to have their interests within the university represented, whilst also receiving many positive and necessary services. However, the grip on the SRC held in recent years by the various factions on the left is one that has allowed for the dangerous combination of an activist political agenda with financial unaccountability. This is not surprising given that the council audits its own books, something which would diminish the credibility of an organisation under normal circumstances. The absurd budget and some egregious cases of expenditure confirm the fact that the SRC under the Left is nothing but an ignominious activist organisation, which seeks to maintain its power and push its own agenda. Thus the council, which should, as stipulated in its very name, exists to represent students, instead serves its own political agenda rather than the broader student body. This would include international students, for example, who receive a disproportionately miniscule amount of funding, despite the fact that they constitute approximately half of the entire undergraduate student body.

 

There are some more peculiar instances of what is ultimately student money being deplorably expended on things which, it could be said, few undergraduate students — at least those without an explicitly leftist political agenda — would be sympathetic to. Consider one particular instance from June 2016, for example, where 50 pizzas were delivered to Parisian workers on strike at the Place de la République, in an ‘act of solidarity’ with the Nuit Debout movement. The minutes of the council meeting in which this ‘important’ motion was carried reveal the frivolous nature of the ordeal, with one councillor quipping, ‘Can we make one of the pizzas gluten free?’ Since when has international socialism represented the interests of the broader student body? Another example of the triviality of SRC expenditure comes from the meeting of January 2017, in which the motion to cover the parking tickets of two Honi Soit editors was carried by the SRC simply because ‘it was not their fault.’ How exactly one can plead ignorance for a parking ticket remains somewhat of a mystery, especially given that there are in fact avenues to seek remedy when one is genuinely not at fault. Yet, even more difficult to understand is how the SRC, which appears to so fervently support Indigenous students, reconciles this with their decision to slash the Indigenous budget by $6,000. The painful irony, of course, is that the SRC, controlled by a faction that fuels identity politics, would cut funding to one of the most underrepresented and disadvantaged groups within tertiary education. The most recent farce, however, was the proposal by the Council’s Education Action Group that would have seen SRC funds spent on renting ‘Scabby the Rat,’ an inflatable rodent to be used at the strikes on September 13. At least initially, the EAG was willing to spend $5,000 in order to have the inflatable for the day. Keep in mind that this inflatable vermin is often employed in order to intimidate and disgrace those staff and students who cross the picket line to work and attend classes. Are the majority of students comfortable with their money being spent shaming themselves?

 

Whilst the Student Representative Council is democratically elected, numerous questions regarding the actions and expenditures of the council should be asked. In order to do so, the apathy of students in the university must be remedied. The greatest danger to the welfare and representation of students is undoubtedly the apathy of the students themselves. It is the student body that has ability to vote for those with an actual desire to represent their fellow students, rather than others for whom the Student Representative Council represents the mere first rung on the career ladder of activists and career politicians.

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