Still in Transition for UMSU International, Five Years Later17 July 2018
On 1 August, the new University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) International committee will officially begin their term. With Jonas Larsen heading the team as president, they already have ideas for improving the organisation.
But although the new committee offers a fresh voice, UMSU International is still working to position itself as an inclusive, representative body for international students.
The organisation was founded in the 1970s as the Melbourne University Overseas Student Service (MUOSS). Since then, it has remained in a constant state of ideological and structural transition.
While MUOSS originally emphasised actively advocating international students’ welfare, in 1993 it announced it would shift its focus from politics to the provision of services.
In 1991, the organisation was officially acknowledged as the sole representation of international students at the University by UMSU’s predecessor, the Melbourne University Student Union. However, it was not until 2013 that the two peak bodies finalised their integration, and MUOSS was rebranded as UMSU International.
Outgoing UMSU International President John Hee believes the organisation is still working on the transition.
“Five years for an organisation is very short, so we definitely have not found our place yet,” said Hee.
In the past year, UMSU International has continued its annual cultural and social activities, such as Festival of Nations and Night Market. It has also actively reached out to commencing international students during the University’s pre-departure events in their home countries.
Moreover, the organisation has restored some of its focus on welfare advocacy. This past year in particular, the organisation has been working to combat sexual assault and racism. It has also worked with UMSU in the work rights campaign.
However, Hee says collaboration between the two bodies can raise potential issues. “I think the primary issue is that UMSU and UMSU International have different election cycles, ” said Hee. “… when previous UMSU presidents [have] tried to do something with UMSU International … there [has been] a switch of power and then everything resets.”
Former international student representative of UMSU’s students’ council, Annie Liew, believes that the different election cycles have both advantages and disadvantages.
“I think the differing elections provide UMSU International better autonomy over their elections,” said Liew. “While it recognises UMSU International’s right to hold elections as they see fit, it also reminds us of the segregation of international and local students.”
Liew was elected during the UMSU elections in September last year. In the past six months, she has voted on students’ council on behalf of all international students. However, she feels that the UMSU International president should be the representative of international students in UMSU, with the ability to vote on students’ council instead.
According to the UMSU constitution, the UMSU International president is considered a non-voting member of the students’ council, like the other UMSU office bearers.
“I think it may be helpful to consider having the president of UMSU International sit on council, regardless of political affiliation,” said Liew. “That is, having them represent international students without being elected in the UMSU elections but the UMSU International elections instead.”
Unlike UMSU office bearer (OB) positions that receive honoraria payments, most UMSU International OB positions are voluntary and unpaid. Although the president’s position could be paid, presidents usually choose not to take the honorarium and instead put it back into the organisation.
While UMSU International relies heavily on their volunteers, a member of the 2018 committee, who wishes to remain anonymous, says this has restricted their ability to contribute to the organisation.
“Being an UMSU International committee member … requires a lot of time and commitment and [members] might find it hard in managing their time well between UMSU International, studies, and other obligations,” the member explained.
Furthermore, due to term limits and international students’ visa requirements to undertake full-time study, it becomes difficult for the committee to tackle welfare issues that require long-term commitment, such as international student housing and working rights.
“With issues involving … welfare, the solution is typically long-term [and] definitely can’t be done in a year, so what we really try to do is we push to raise awareness and to collect data,” said Hee.
While UMSU International has attempted to increase its focus on welfare and student advocacy since being incorporated into UMSU, this has had its difficulties.
The organisation’s governing body, the UMSU International central committee, consists of an executive committee and five departments: education and welfare (E&W), cultural and social (C&S), communications, partnership and sponsorship, and human resources. E&W and C&S are the largest departments, with the former working on international students’ education and welfare, and the latter organising flagship events.
During elections, a contrast seems to manifest between the departments, with C&S garnering more attention than E&W. This year, the new C&S Vice President Wei Jen Lau received the largest number of votes (659). Conversely, the E&W vice president position has remained uncontested since 2017.
Jack Phang, the new E&W vice president, was appointed due to a sudden withdrawal from his competitor. He acknowledges the difference between the two departments. “It might just [be] that different people have different interests,” said Phang.
He added that being uncontested has given him the responsibility to prove his competence through his future work.
Hee has also defended the E&W department and said its work is less visible than that of C&S.
“E&W seems like they are not doing as much as C&S simply because the type of work they are doing is more hidden,” Hee said.
In addition, this year students appeared to prefer to run for positions outside the executive committee, which includes the president, two vice presidents, treasurer and secretary. The rest of the central committee largely comprises officers, who hold significantly less responsibility.
This year, 13 people ran for the four E&W officer positions, and 11 people for the six C&S officer positions. The position of president was also uncontested this year, as well as in 2016.
“I was uncontested due to the lack of involvement from students outside UMSU International,” said Larsen, who was also the only presidential candidate from the previous central committee. “Whether this was because they were not aware of the election, or they did not feel qualified taking on the role of president as an outsider, I don’t know.”
Publicity remains an issue for UMSU International elections. This year, the total number of votes accumulated over the three-day period was 1,699, amounting to 8.5 per cent of the 19,995 international students eligible to vote. However, according to Hee the turnout has increased by an estimated 500 votes compared to last year.
The incoming 2018-2019 central committee is considered to be Asian-dominated, with only one member not from any of these countries. In terms of gender representation, the committee has achieved relative balance with 11 males and 14 females representing the international student body.
However, it should be noted that within this, both the E&W department and executive committee are currently male-dominated, with each including only one female. The gender imbalance potentially poses a representational issue. Currently, unlike UMSU and the Graduate Student Association, UMSU International does not have affirmative action requirements for women in the central committee.
Hee does not view this as an issue, as he deems the election process democratic. Conversely, Larsen has different ideas regarding how the committee should work to bridge the gap.
“We intend to compensate for our executive committee’s gender imbalance through ongoing consultation with female UMSU International committee members,” said Larsen. The incoming committee has since announced that they will be recruiting additional non-elected officers for the 2018–19 team. Applications are open until 25 July.
Additionally, in 2017, the UMSU International president was given a seat in the University’s Respect Taskforce which deals with sexual assault and harassment on campus.
Although issues concerning the integration of UMSU and UMSU International are ongoing, former UMSU International members are optimistic about its future.
“I definitely think there is room for better integration. To my knowledge, UMSU International is the only representative division that operates separately from UMSU,” said Liew, who volunteered with the department before joining students’ council.
“I believe more cooperation might be beneficial in better representing international student issues. This might also be a step towards closing the gap between local and international students.”
Hee looks forward to seeing the new committee uphold its strength in activities and accept the challenge of the growing need for welfare advocacy.
“I hope the new committee can sort of embrace … and understand the need to push that change, and that they should not be afraid [of] pushing the boundary a little bit,” said Hee. “That’s what I hope they can do.”