BOOSUL Services

19 July 2016

The University of Melbourne’s troubled student services provider, MUSUL Services, has received a brief reprieve as it continues to face questions over its future.

The University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU), one of MUSUL’s main clients, has decided against ripping up its Facilities and Services Agreement (FSA) with MUSUL, for now. Terminating the FSA could see a major change to University services, potentially heralding the end of MUSUL.

MUSUL oversees Union House infrastructure and tenancies, and provides corporate services to student organisations such as UMSU. These corporate services include finance, IT and human resources. But UMSU has long been dissatisfied with MUSUL’s performance.

UMSU asked MUSUL to “show cause” as to why the FSA should not be terminated a few months ago.

While it was expected that six months notice would be needed to terminate the FSA, the University announced that UMSU could do it in only three months. UMSU officials have thus decided to defer any termination for now, thanks to the more flexible period.

“The long and short of it is: this has been coming for a long time. Students’ Council is finally fed up with it and MUSUL was asked to show cause,” UMSU President Tyson Holloway-Clarke said.

“The result of that was the cause was not shown to be satisfactory.”

He said he is pleased that UMSU has more time to consider its options.

“The big kickers are some of the really massive insufficiencies. For example, we have an entirely paper based financial system, which is absolutely ridiculous for an organisation of our size and nature in the 21st Century,” said Holloway-Clarke.

“I also acknowledge that the deferment of the decision is not UMSU taking this off the table; but I respect their responsible attitude to hear and listen to what the University may be thinking on this issue prior to committing to any final course of action,” said Simon Napthine, MUSUL’s newly installed CEO.

As Farrago has reported extensively, MUSUL has been locked in a long running dispute with UMSU over questions of management and service delivery.

Senior UMSU officials have accused MUSUL of not holding up its end of the FSA around corporate services. Specifically, these officials have accused MUSUL of failing to provide up to date and accurate financial information about the state of UMSU’s finances.

A recent fraud case involving a MUSUL staff member has contributed to tensions. The staff member was let go and MUSUL has assured UMSU that none of its money has been lost.

Owned by the University, MUSUL was set up in the wake of the collapsed Melbourne University Student Union in 2003, after fraud and mismanagement accusations. The MUSUL board consists of a majority of University appointees, alongside three student directors.

Recently departed CEO Trevor White and his predecessor, Clemens Unger, had rocky tenures. Both faced heavy disputes with both staff and student union officials.

White recently retired from the organisation. Respected businessman Simon Napthine, previously General Manager of the Graduate Student Association, is MUSUL’s new CEO. Napthine says MUSUL will be reviewing its services.

“We are presently taking a range of benchmarking exercises that we think may highlight some perception gaps between how we actually operate and how we are perceived to operate, as well as identify clearly the areas of non-performance,” he said.

In particular, the issue of financial services is key. If UMSU goes ahead and nonetheless terminates its agreement with MUSUL, the options are multifold. UMSU could seek to have MUSUL rearranged, or replaced by a new but similar organisation. It could also seek to place some services in-house, have some provided by the University or some contracted to a private company. At this point, it appears that placing at least some services in-house may be a likely option.

What will happen to MUSUL’s tenancies and businesses is less clear. Both are a huge potential source of revenue, funding a large part of operations of other student unions, similar to the UWA Guild and University of Sydney Union models. The proposed replacement of Union House adds further complications.

Other questions loom over MUSUL’s funding. Over $700,000 of students’ money every year goes to MUSUL through the Student Services and Amenities Fee, which will have to flow somewhere else instead. A final source of questions is over MUSUL’s multimillion-dollar reserves and whether UMSU or the University would receive those.

It’s a big time for the future of student services.

“My own feelings are that it is always good and healthy for any place such as a University to review how it does things and ask, can it be done better and what are the alternatives,” says Napthine, but he adds that he is concerned for MUSUL staff.

“I feel for my staff at MUSUL who are living with this uncertainty.”

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