Presidential Candidate Profile: Archit Agrawal

30 August 2021

(content warning: sexism)

Meet Archit Agrawal, the presidential candidate for Community. Following an unsuccessful campaign last year for UMSU’s president role, Agrawal is committed to centering student voices, particularly those of international students like himself. While Community held the vast majority of UMSU offices and positions this year, Agrawal says the ticket will continue to push for better quality of education and long-term fee reform.

Farrago sat down with Agrawal to find out more about his presidential campaign and his vision for the Union in 2022.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Farrago:

What is the first thing you intend to do if you get elected into office?

Archit Agrawal: 

I think there is so much to start with. What really strikes the issues for us is making sure our entire campaign is accessible to all students, is open to all students. Everyone is able to access it, no matter if they are international, domestic, rich, poor. This is our union, and we should be able to access it. 

So the first thing we would be looking to do is take steps to ensure that UMSU is able to put in place procedures that protect all students, especially ones within its own ranks. So that could include things like ensuring that when our international student office bearers, UMSU international office bearers or Southbank office bearers are working, they are compensated for their work in the same way as domestic students who are working at Parkville are compensated. And ensuring that we make rules and regulations around things, like ensuring that international students who are studying full time due to the visa requirements are still able to manage union work, due to the extensive support network that is available in the Union, and doing things like setting up regulations to ensure compliance.

Farrago:

You’ve briefly touched on this already, but what are your three main goals for the Union next year?

Archit Agrawal:

Yeah. So I guess there’s that one thing of inclusivity. The second thing, which our councillors this year have been really heavily involved in, is constitutional reforms. We want to fix affirmative action in the Constitution for sure. We want to fix the general language and the legibility of the Constitution, and ensure that UMSU’s policies and regulations and the Constitution do not contradict themselves at multiple points. There is consistent policy across the board that we’re able to follow for good governance procedures. And if I had to name a third one, it would be the quality of education, especially for those who have been studying online for the past 18 months and more. Something that is really, really painful for a lot of students — some of these students might finish their degree at the end of this year, studying online the entire time, you know. So that’s something that the University must take accountability for. And we will make sure that the mechanisms we have in place that collect feedback on subjects and courses is able to make a difference at the University, which is something which we have seen diminish in the past two years since the pandemic started.

Farrago:

Last year, you and your ticket campaigned for fee relief for international students. But as of now, this doesn’t seem to have happened, and I’m not really sure where exactly that campaign is at the comment. Can you talk about why nothing seems to have happened so far, and what are the steps that you’ll take? Is fee relief still a goal, and what will you do next year to support these international students? 

Archit Agrawal:

I think a lot has happened on that front, actually. What we have done this year is, we’ve been in conversations with UMSU International’s presidents. And we’ve been talking to them about how they would feel about leading this campaign. And UMSU’s standing in solidarity with them, while they are leading this campaign. The way this campaign would move forward is that, to figure out fee relief for specific courses would require an extensive sort of survey of every single unit, and how each year it was impacted by the pandemic. And then we would be able to figure out how much does each unit deserve a rebate. However, there is a second option. International students are not just paying for their education, they are paying for a lot more than just their education, and they’re not able to access those services. If we can hone in and hammer down on that, I feel like there’s a lot of opportunity for us to be able to make not just fee relief happen for the pandemic, but to look into long term fee relief, and fee reform for international students, so that the University stops treating us as cash cows, and moves forward towards a much more inclusive way of treating international students.

Farrago:

Do you think that’s something you’ll be able to achieve, if you are elected to office?

Archit Agrawal:

Absolutely. I am committed 100 percent to ensuring fee reform for international students. And not just for international students, the higher education bill last year on the fee hikes is something that is really against everything [that] Community stands for. Education should be free, it’s not a commodity. And we are not going to let the University sit by and sell it as a product to our students. There is no reason why the same subject that was offered for $4,800 in 2019 is going to be offered for almost $6,000 in 2022. There is no reason for that and the University cannot justify it. We have to build a grassroots movement. 

Farrago:

Let’s go back to you as an individual candidate. I wonder why you are running for a second year in a row despite not having been elected last year? What do you think has changed in the last year that gives you a better chance this year?

Archit Agrawal:

My ticket and my caucus, Community’s caucus, put my name forward and I was pre-selected within our own governance proceedings. So I’m running again, to respect the wishes of my caucus. I do believe I am the best candidate, the best-placed candidate, this year to be running for this position, and unfortunately, the answer for that is not in what has changed in the last year, it is in what has not changed in the last year. The question of representation, the question of a seat at the table for us, for marginalized communities, as an international student, still remains. I am committed to resolving that question. I take very seriously when we talk about student representation. It’s something that is very close to my heart, and there is so much work that needs to be done in that area. I am committed to ensuring that we open up UMSU to students from so many different backgrounds, that the organization just flows with diversity. If we are able to do that, if we are able to bring normal students to UMSU, the unnecessary partisanship and politics will exit from the organization and the genuine desire to help students will come up, because that’s what these normal students want. And that’s the reason I’m running again, because I’m excited about this new Community ticket, this more-diverse-than-ever Community ticket. I feel like they’re going to be able to create some wonderful change in the 2022 year. 

Farrago:

A lot of students, understandably, are feeling isolated and disconnected. How do you plan on fostering that sense of community again? What are the things you want to implement to bring those students into the union, especially for those who are still stuck abroad and are unable to come to campus, even if lockdown ends?

Archit Agrawal:

Overseas students are a big priority for us. We intend to run some sort of a social media campaign in collaboration with other unions across the country, to raise awareness about how these international students are stuck overseas, what are the situations they’re facing, what are the problems they’re facing. 

I don’t promise that we are going to be able to, you know, 100 percent get the federal government to open all borders. But what we will be able to do is share those stories, and force the University to take action on those stories. 

In terms of how do we sort of engage with them — I think the best way to engage with them is ask them how do they want to be engaged, and therefore, we are running multiple candidates this year who are actually overseas, who are in their third, fourth semester of university who have never been to Melbourne before. And these candidates have been feeling isolated. These students have new concerns about, you know, what about special consideration? What about Counseling and Psychological Services? What about SEDS services? What about health services? These services are really inaccessible to students overseas, and if we make sure that we have elected representatives in the Union who are from these backgrounds, who are facing these problems, with the lived experience of being an overseas student, they will be able to bring to the Union the perspective that we need to support overseas students. 

Farrago:

This year we’ve seen a lot of toxic factional conflict within the Union. How do you plan to unite the Union again, and create a less hostile working environment for the student representatives who are engaging in this environment?

Archit Agrawal:

I think I can speak with confidence that most of our candidates, when they get elected, can openly and confidently say that they have not been involved in student politics for years. They’re not doing this because they love student politics, but they’re genuinely there to help students. 

But the condition is, there have been some political differences this year. Community believes in a certain political platform and if we are trying to enact that political platform — and students have given us the mandate to enact that political platform — and somebody unnecessarily hinders the process, then we have to work in a way that we are able to make progress in the Union and not just be tied down in bureaucratic processes all along the year. So, we only have one year of governance, and we have to make sure that we make progress as well, so balancing that is really, really important, and finding that fine balance of like, okay, let’s engage in good faith on everything that we can, but where we have differences, let’s debate them. And then let’s put it to a vote to the council or to the committees and let’s let the process decide what’s best for the Union.

Farrago:

You’ve spoken a lot about your tickets and candidates, but I want to bring it back to you as President. What specifically will you do, what concrete actions or steps will you specifically take to make sure that everyone is working together peacefully and there isn’t a toxic working environment? 

Archit Agrawal:

Absolutely. Look, I think, again, this is something I would do, but it does connect to the candidates, and it does to the people. A lot of the job for the president can be — well, there’s one thing: you can lead by example. If I put myself out there, basically, I encourage all office bearer candidates to engage in good faith with everyone in the Union, everyone who’s trying to do good for students in the Union. I think that’s going to create a difference. So that’s something I definitely intend to do. 

The other thing that I think the President’s role can really entail is connecting and supporting your staff, your office bearer candidates, all other student representatives in the Union, no matter from which ticket, supporting them and making them feel confident about their opinions and their voices. We here at UMSU want to centre student voices. And as President, I would intend to ensure that at all times, student opinions are treated with respect, that we listen to student voices, we understand what they’re trying to say, and we make decisions based on student opinions. That’s something that we are looking into doing. So basically ensuring that anything where we can have student voices centered, we open up to public platforms and ensure that we are able to bring a lot of that into the Union. 

Farrago:

You mentioned respect, and that’s obviously a very important value. But allegations of misogyny and sexism have been levelled against you personally this year. These accusations have allegedly led to you being told to stop attending Students’ Council. Can you address these allegations about your behaviour?

Archit Agrawal

I am unsure, I have not been told to stop attending Students’ Council meetings. That is information to me as well, thank you for sharing. In case of allegations of sexism and misogyny against me, again, I have not been given any opportunity to respond to any of these allegations at all. This is completely new. And I would say that  I don’t know who has made these allegations, but I do believe that there has been some partisan complaint making from both sides, from both of the major tickets in UMSU. I’m committed to following procedure, and the due process, and if the procedure and the due process finds that I have done something wrong, I will be willing to take responsibility for my actions and do whatever it takes to fix my actions. But I do not believe there have been anything of that nature shared with me, I don’t think anything has been proven. I do hear a lot of these things, but as long as somebody doesn’t send me something in my email or by message, there’s nothing I can do to convince them that I am not engaged in sexist or misogynistic behavior. 

Farrago:

You mentioned partisan complaint making — numerous people, including office bearers this year, have either quit their positions or the Community ticket over the last year. What does this say about your leadership of the ticket?

Archit Agrawal:

I want to name these people actually. Anh Nguyen and James Park, Enviro office bearers. Ciara O’Sullivan, general secretary at the start of this year. And Will Hall, Southbank office bearer. I’m proud to say I’m friends with all of them, I hold them very close to my heart, and they feel the same about me. You can reach out to them. And I’ve been the coordinator of Community this year, and they can testify to Community’s leadership and internal culture at all times. 

I’m very glad this question was asked because what I want to point to is the fact that we haven’t talked about the general secretary’s resignation in this union. No one outside Community is talking about the general secretary’s resignation for about four months now, and the circumstances under which it happened. Nobody’s talking about it. 

What I want to point out is that these two people, James Park and Anh Nguyen, who were born outside Australia, with international backgrounds, both people of color, elected to the environment office, and the environmental activism in this union was so toxic that they couldn’t survive in their roles for an entire year — is something that we should be talking about.  

Will Hall, as a member of Students’ Council, raised a genuine point about how he believed certain members who are under the Students’ Council’s jurisdiction should be held accountable, received complaints filed against them for exercising a lawful right given to him by council. 

These are the people — and multiple council members, be it Andoni or Rubina, anyone who has resigned from the Community ticket — they have not quit the Community ticket, they are still very close to the Community ticket, and I can proudly say that they believe in everything that Community wants to do, even more so. They just don’t think that they would be able to give UMSU more in this year, because of what UMSU has put them through. And we want to change that next year, so that no office bearer, no one, no matter from what background, has to go through that ever again, ever.

Farrago:

And what about the Womens’ and Creative Arts OBs?

Archit Agrawal

So the Women’s and Creative Arts OBs — the Women’s office bearer was expelled from Community — they did not quit Community — for disciplinary reasons. Following that, the only people who had left was one of the Women’s officers and one of the Creative Arts officers, not both. One of them is still, as I’m aware, they’re still in the Community grouping. 

But I do want to say, yes, I agree that, you know, one of the Creative Arts officers who ran as  Community last year is not a part of Community this year. But, you know, a number of people who ran under the Stand Up! ticket last year are not part of the Stand Up! ticket this year. So politics —

Farrago:

I mean, I’m having this conversation with you right now, not with the Stand Up! candidate.

Archit Agrawal:

I wonder if the same questions are being asked there. 

But look, politics is ever changing. We are running over 110 candidates this year. I don’t know of any UMSU election in which one ticket ran over 110 individual candidates for over 120 positions. We have a caucus size that is beyond anything that I have ever heard of. When we have so many people across the board — we elected, what, 85 office bearers or 85 student representatives to different positions last year — political differences arise. We’re a political group, yes, and one or two happen to go a different way, and we totally respect that. We still believe that they are doing a good job in their department and are utilizing their time in UMSU in a great way. We just have a few things that we differ on and that’s totally okay I think. That’s the point of, you know, democracy. 

Farrago:

Any closing remarks?

Archit Agrawal:

What I want to say to the student body is that it’s been an incredibly difficult year for a lot of us. And I don’t pretend to know everything about the pains of every single student. But I can say that I try to learn and I try to feel, and I try to understand what I can do to make things better. If I am elected president, and if the Community team is given the responsibility to run UMSU next year by the student body, we will do everything in our power to ensure that UMSU is a truly student-led organization, that respects student opinions and ensures that it cares for all students at all times. As a student body, we will stand united, and we will celebrate our differences. We will celebrate everything that is different about us. And yet tell the University that at the end of the day, we all want one thing: quality education at a reasonable price. And anything less than that we will not be willing to accept. 

I look forward to serving, and Community’s candidates look forward to serving the University of Melbourne student community with all our hearts next year in 2022, and we will be incredibly honored to have the opportunity.

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If you want to know more about who is running for YOUR student union in 2022, Farrago is hosting a presidential candidate debate on Wednesday 1 September at 5:30pm AEST. More details here. All students welcome!


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