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Autonomy  •  22 October 2021  •  Offhand

UTS StuPol 101: What's the UTSSA Election, and Why Should I Care?

By Erin Ewen

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this article do not represent those of the Vertigo editorial team. 

‘Autonomy’ is the election issue of Vertigo for 2021, meaning more of our content is reserved for student politics in the lead up to the election. We are here to inform students of the current discourse surrounding the UTSSA so they can better understand the current climate of stupol at UTS and make informed decisions when voting. 

Even as part of the UTSSA ourselves, Vertigo knows the world of student politics can often be a mystifying one. For those who aren’t up to date, have never voted (or cared) about the UTSSA election, please consider this your go-to explainer for all things stupol at UTS. 

So... what’s the SA?

The Student Association, or the UTSSA, is an autonomous group of students who advocate for, support and represent UTS students. Essentially, they work together to provide services they deem valuable to students, like free meals from Bluebird Brekkie Bar, or student legal services. They are an elected group that acts as the voice for students within UTS and an advocacy body, which is especially important when engaging with UTS management.

Collectives and the SRC: 

Within the SA, groups of students interested in the same issues join together to create collectives. There are heaps of collectives, including the Queer Collective, Enviro Collective, and Women’s Collective, just to name a few. Collectives are one of the key areas students can get involved with activism and political advocacy. 

The SRC, or Student Representative Council, acts as the authoritative body within the UTSSA. The current Executive Team running the show are Aidan O’Rourke (President), Erin Dalton (General Secretary), Camille Smith (Assistant General Secretary), Sabrine Yassine (Welfare Officer), and Ellie Woodward (Education Officer). 

Upcoming Election Details: 

Each year, there’s an election to determine who holds these positions of authority within the UTSSA. This year, it’s being held entirely online, from the 26th – 28th of October.

While for some, this may mean no more awkward conversations on the Alumni Green with people you don’t know approaching you, asking for your vote. But for others, it means voting in this student election might actually be more accessible.

Why should you care? 

Lots of us come to uni just to hold that sweet, sweet diploma. And honestly, that’s totally fine.
Right now with everything going on, it seems there’s one echo chamber that really cares about student politics within UTS, and then the rest of us who just want to get on with our degrees.
But it’s clear others came with the goal to make the university a better place when they leave it. 

As we all know, 2021 has been a tough year for students. It’s important to be seeking strong student representatives who advocate for us and uphold the values we support. Student life (or the lack of it) has gone through some serious changes since the pandemic began two years ago. We should be looking to vote for a student council that isn’t focused on getting uni back to the way it was, but focuses on future-proofing the student experience and making it better than ever. 

Education Officer, Ellie Woodward, said: “The UTSSA is a very important organisation, as are all student unions — student unions can be incredible forces for change, student democracy and, radical politics. It’s really important that students engage with the UTSSA and its collectives.” 

At the end of the day, you’re paying for these services. Your Student Services and Amenities Fee directly funds them. If you would like to have a say about how your money is spent, vote. Those who get elected will go on to make decisions on behalf of us, the students. 

What’s the deal right now? 

As always, making decisions on behalf of others is fraught with problems and student politics is no exception to this. This year’s SRC has faced its fair share of criticism. As the student publication of UTS, it would be remiss of Vertigo not to highlight such issues when they are brought to our attention. We usually let the reports at the end of the magazine speak to these issues, but as this is the election issue, it only seems appropriate. 

Accusations of censorship and undemocratic action against student activists have been made towards the UTSSA. 

Education Officer, Ellie Woodward provided comments to Vertigo regarding these criticisms: “This year the Labour-run UTSSA has censored collectives, stripped many of us of our budgets, and banned many of us from using or entering the UTSSA spaces.”

“This is extremely undemocratic, and converse to how a student union should operate. The student union should not discipline student activists on the orders of, or to protect the interests of, university management — that is not the role of any union. We need a fighting UTSSA that doesn’t freak out when activists put up posters. Though it is important to remember that a union is its membership, not its leadership,” said Ellie Woodward. 

When approached for comment on these issues, UTSSA President Aidan O’Rourke said: “It should be noted that an argument will be mounted to claim that this is about posters and Blu Tac. This is an astonishing distraction from the real issues. The measures set out by the UTSSA have always been about ensuring that our rules are followed. When our rules are broken, we become illegitimate, unaccountable, and not transparent — words that should never be heard in an over-a-million-dollar organisation. Rule-breaking also significantly affects our ability to secure funds from the University. As President, I have not taken any direction from university management nor have management given me a direction, with only one exception – that both university rules and our own rules are to be followed.” 

In regards to the allegations of censorship, President O’Rourke said: “The response from the UTSSA to the rule-breaking was simple. Funding and UTSSA resources to rule-breaking Collectives would cease until they agreed to follow our rules. The Collectives argue that this amounted to censorship. This argument ignores two facts. Firstly, Collectives could elect to follow the rules and mount a full-throated campaign on any issue of their choice. No university or UTSSA rule prevents Collectives from engaging in any campaign or from campaigning in university spaces. Secondly, the decision to withdraw support from the UTSSA meant that the SRC could not provide funds in accordance with any rule, or By-Law. In effect, our hands were tied. From any other perspective, the withdrawal of support amounted to self-censorship.”

“This effort by the Collectives was a concerted political attack on the President and the SRC
to create the illusion of censorship and aid their inevitable election campaign. The fact is if these critics were elected and allowed the degree of rule-breaking they were advocating for, they would be committing fraud,” he said. 

Vertigo was approached by Education Action Group (EAG) activist, Lucia Thornton, who said: “The Labor factions of the UTSSA have an appalling record of shutting down activism on campus. All year they’ve been preventing activists from putting up posters for rallies, barring students from entering activist spaces, and even calling security on myself and two other students for daring to ask questions in what should have been a democratic student union meeting.”

While there is a dispute over the behaviour exhibited at this meeting which prompted security to be called, the EAG activist was concerned over the recent decision to form a grievance committee, whose purpose would be to “hear and manage disputes within the UTSSA”, as stated by the President.

Lucia Thornton continued, “The UTSSA has set up a grievance committee to discipline those whose behaviour they declare to be unacceptable. Considering what has been deemed “unacceptable” in the past amounts to putting up posters for rallies or asking questions in meetings, it’s clear [the Grievance Committee] will be used as a political tool to bar activists from running in opposition to Labor in the upcoming elections.” 

“Given the dire state of the world, student unions need to be organising around pressing political issues rather than spending their time repressing activists,” said Lucia Thornton. 

In response to this criticism, President O’Rourke said: “The matter of the Grievance Committee is straightforward. The UTSSA Constitution (reformed in 2019) requires the SRC to establish a standing Grievance Committee — that is always in operation — to hear and manage disputes within the UTSSA. Last year’s President failed to set up and build the required procedures of the Grievance Committee, leaving it to this year’s team to build them instead.” 

“That project was initiated and supported by every Councillor and Collective at the time. As Collective frustrations with SRC emerged, support for the Grievance Committee waned because they recognised that the Committee would penalise their breaking of our rules. Effectively, opposition to the Grievance Committee is driven by a want to break rules without punishment,” said President O’Rourke. 

Please note, these statements were not written on behalf of the UTSSA and are personal statements from the President. 

So... what now? 

As a student union, the SA should fundamentally reflect the needs of students. It’s clear that the balance of the UTSSA as a student service provider and advocacy body has been questioned this year. As the SA operates on student money and this money is allocated by the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, we are in need of a student union that engages with activism and takes strong political action while continuing to support and provide for us. 

In this election, we can only hope that a skilled, strong and unifying UTSSA will deliver this. 

The UTSSA President’s statement can be found in full on our website.

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