The state branches of the National Union of Students are generally regarded as mere ‘paper tigers’: organisations that have in place complex, bureaucratic structures, plenty of office bearers, but no real capacity for general co-ordination of the activities of student unions in their respective states. In NSW we have a state branch which has plenty of potential and plenty of enthusiastic office bearers, but no real capacity to contribute to the student movement.
I should preface this: this has been by far the NUS’ most productive year since I began my involvement in the student movement. The National President and National Education Officer have taken an active effort to organise grassroots student campaigns against the higher education cuts, and the huge demonstrations we’ve seen in Melbourne and Sydney have been largely driven by a revitalised NUS. I have nothing but respect for Jade Tyrrell and Clare Keyes-Liley, and I applaud their moves away from how the NUS used to operate. At times it used to seem like NUS was just a handful of people who sat in an office in Melbourne and wrote press releases. The ‘bad old days’ are over.
I do see serious problems, however, with the NUS’ focus on a top-heavy organising model, which relies on a sole National Officer to be the one person with responsibility across the country for organising NUS campaigns in their divisional issue (Education – Welfare – Queer – Women’s – Disabilities, etc.) There is necessarily a limit to how much organising a single National Officer can do in a vast geographical landmass like Australia – it would be very difficult for a National Officer to fly around the country and visit enough campuses that they could substantatively organise the student body in a way that would be meaningful. Campus visits are valuable, but organising requires weekly, sometimes daily, contact with the constituency – and that is unfortunately impossible for one person. No trade union would adopt this model – if we compare affiliate campuses to workplaces, it would be recognised as impractical for a single national organiser to be responsible for organising every section of the union at every workplace.
I believe that the solution is in geography: we should empower the state branches.
The first step is to give them back their funding. Before Voluntary Student Unionism (when, admittedly, the NUS had a lot more money) at the very least the State Branch Presidents were paid a half-time stipend, which gave student organisations a local representative of the NUS who they could rely upon to actively co-ordinate cross-campus education campaigns as their job. Australia is too big a place for the National Officers to micromanage a national day of action, so it makes sense for responsibility to be delegated to a dedicated organiser in each capital city.
A case study is the NUS West Australian branch, which has a stipended State President. NUS West is a vibrant organisation, which, unlike NUS NSW, has a very real role in co-ordinating student activists in that state. We should have a serious discussion about the relative merits of stripping the vast majority of National Officebearers of their stipends (minus, of course, the President, Education Officer and General Secretary who perform the essential work of a national student union), and adopting an area-based organising model with a paid organiser in each state.
We should also bring back State Conference.
National Conference is problematic: it exists as the peak representative body for student issues to be debated, and it fulfils this purpose, but it is usually far too expensive for most students to travel down to Melbourne every year for up to two weeks just to have their voices heard. Bringing back a two-day NUS State Conference would be a very interesting experiment in participatory democracy. In the case of NUS NSW, holding it at somewhere like UTS or Sydney University would allow not just delegates and factional hacks, but also give regular students from metropolitan Sydney the opportunity to attend and determine the democratic direction of an organisation which they could see in a concrete sense and identify with. There is already provision in the NUS Constitution for State Conferences, so this is something perfectly legitimate.
NUS NSW State Branch should have funding. In times past, 33% of each student union’s affiliation fees went directly to state branch. This meant that the state organisations could afford to rent office space where the state exec could organise from, sometimes employ secretarial and policy staff, publish newsletters and have money they could use to run campaigns. Obviously, since Voluntary Student Unionism, there is far less money in student unions.
How could we concretely move forward? If the SRC at USYD agreed to give temporary occupancy to the NUS NSW state branch of an office in the SRC complex, I believe that as a first step there would be the beginning of state-wide co-ordination of student union activity. This is an idea that should be considered. Secondly, the major student unions in metropolitan Sydney (UNSW SRC, UTS SA, USYD SRC) have the financial capacity several thousand dollars each to the NUS state branch. As a one-off grant this would ensure that NUS NSW would cease to be a ‘paper’ entity – it could in a very real way resource itself and begin to organise NSW students against an Abbott government.