Words by Martin Ditmann
UMSU’s 2015 budget has passed Students’ Council, including a major controversial cut to payments to the National Union of Students.
The budget, drawn up by new UMSU president Rachel Withers and her independent More Activities! grouping, passed following heated debate over the readjusted NUS allocation.
The National Union of Students is the peak body for Australian students and student unions.
The NUS receives strong support from the National Labor Students (Labor Left), Student Unity (Labor Right) and Socialist Alternative political groupings. The groupings argue that the NUS plays a crucial role in advocating for student rights, equitable education and social justice issues.
In contrast, the National Independents, Grassroots Left and ALSF (Liberal) groupings have traditionally been NUS-sceptical or anti-NUS, accusing the national body of mismanagement, factionalism, transparency issues and waste.
Withers was elected last year on a platform of increasing funding to clubs, entertainment and volunteering programs at the university. While the NUS did not emerge as an explicit issue during the 2014 UMSU elections, her grouping has a history of scepticism towards various approaches from the NUS.
Students’ Councillor and Grassroots Left member Pat Dollard seconded the budget.
The budget included a cut to the UMSU-NUS affiliation allocation from $106,000 to $55,500. Withers argued that budgetary constraints played a part, as well as her desire to increase funding to other programs.
The budget also included a new $22,500 contingency fund. The fund was suggested by UMSU General Manager Justin Baré, following a series of miscalculations by UMSU’s accounting support and corporate services firm, MUSUL. The budget was redrawn twice after MUSUL revealed it had miscalculated staffing costs by tens of thousands of dollars.
The 2015 UMSU budget also required that the NUS release a number of governing and financial documents before receiving its allocation.
NUS National President Rose Steele and National General Secretary Tom Nock gave a presentation before the UMSU budget discussion started, arguing in favour of the NUS and saying it were undertaking a program of reform and transparency measures.
A motion moved by Student Unity-affiliated councillor and NUS National Executive member Ezgi Bridger and seconded by NLS-affiliated UMSU Welfare Officer James Bashford sought to have $14,000 moved from that fund to the NUS allocation. It also sought to increase the budget for UMSU’s department at the Victorian College of the Arts budget by $3,000.
NLS, Student Unity and Socialist Alternative members supported Bridger’s amendment increasing NUS funding. More Activities!, Grassroots Left and a number of other additional councillors not aligned to national groupings opposed the amendment. The ShortCons, a Labor Right political grouping distinct from Student Unity, also opposed the amendment.
Those in support of the amendment argued that the NUS needed more funding to be able to fight for students’ rights, as well as expressing doubt around the need for a contingency fund and its governance. Those against argued that the contingency money was needed, as well as expressing scepticism in the NUS, particularly its treatment of Indigenous issues.
The amendment failed. One amendment did pass, however.
A second motion moved by former UMSU Indigenous Officer Maddee Clark, accepted by Withers, saw requirements added for the NUS to demonstrate “what steps it will take to support Indigenous, environment, international and disabled students”.
NUS National Office Bearers in those areas are not paid, with some recently being changed from paid to unpaid positions – a move controversial in the NUS.
Following the amendment process, the budget passed, without Bridger’s amendment, in the last minute of council before quorum was lost.