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News Article

OPINION: The GSA is Rushing Through Structural Changes That Will Crush Student Democracy

On 5 February, a blog post appeared on the website of the Graduate Student Association (GSA) announcing major plans to reshape its structure and amend its constitution. Obscured by a number of seemingly innocuous changes is a proposed transformation that would impose serious limits on student activism, and should be of concern to all graduate students.

On 5 February, a blog post appeared on the website of the Graduate Student Association (GSA) announcing major plans to reshape its structure and amend its constitution. Obscured by a number of seemingly innocuous changes is a proposed transformation that would impose serious limits on student activism, and should be of concern to all graduate students.

The GSA is the peak representative body for graduate students at the University of Melbourne. It represents an important component of student democracy through which graduate students can fight for their rights and advocate around a range of issues that impact them, both on campus and in wider society. The very existence of the GSA reflects the fact that graduate students face common issues needing a collective response.

According to the notice written by the GSA General Secretary, the restructure would see the Education (Coursework) Officer position entirely removed from the Representative Council.         

The Education (Research) Officer will also be renamed as solely the Research Officer, which would diminish the purview of the role to focus strictly on graduate researchers “who experience different issues than coursework students”.     

The proposed changes to the GSA will actively impede these office bearers’ capacity to unite, and act in the interests of, the graduate student body as a whole. But the need for collective student action is now more urgent than ever.

While the University of Melbourne operated at a surplus of approximately $178 million in 2020, Chancellery sacked thousands of university staff. The vast majority of those staff were casuals and fixed term workers, often drawn from the graduate student body. In stark contrast to Vice-Chancellor Duncan Maskell who rakes in $1.2 million annually, graduate students who manage to find work as casual tutors have faced systematic wage theft, amidst diminishing levels of social and economic welfare and rising rates of student poverty.

At a national level, changes to higher education funding and policy—from the Job-Ready Graduates package to the recently announced Trailblazer Universities program—foreshadow a bleak future for universities in which they operate as direct extensions of businesses, with research and learning subordinated to industry imperatives, and students treated merely as more or less profitable investments.

In light of these unceasing attacks on conditions in higher education,  it is absolutely critical that students, our representatives, and our unions are collectively engaged in efforts to take a lead and fight back. 

The current Education (Coursework) and Education (Research) Officers, Brendan Laws and Monica Sestito respectively, have demonstrated the way in which the GSA, and in particular the Education Officer positions, can be used to mobilise students in taking action against injustices playing out on our campus.

In collaboration with the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) Education Office, the GSA Education officers launched a public campaign to oppose the establishment of the Robert Menzies Institute in the Old Quad last November. The Institute—whose board members rank among some of the most heinous rightwing, racist, climate denying pundits this country has to offer—was bankrolled by $7 million worth of Federal Liberal Party funding and consequently embraced by University management, without consultation with students and staff. The campaign opposing the Institute and the outrageous process by which it materialised on campus has since drawn the support of hundreds of students; The open letter accompanying the campaign has received over 1000 signatures to date.

This is evidence that activist student unionists can successfully involve and lead students in broad campaigns to fight for their collective interests and rights. Yet it is increasingly by design that we see organisations like the GSA narrow the capabilities of democratically elected office bearers to the point of irrelevancy.

The proposed changes to the structure of the Representative Council will confine those holding the new positions to passive, bureaucratic work. Within these restraints, there will be no scope for the kind of bigger picture assessment of, or engagement with, the University and its graduate student population as a whole that the current Education positions offer.

If truly democratic in nature, the GSA would encourage those elected to the Representative Council to involve as many students as possible in activism, advocacy, and decision-making processes. What the restructures instead will achieve is a deeply undemocratic, depoliticizing state of affairs whereby elected representatives function only as one-way conduits to unaccountable managers who more often than not are divorced from, or directly inciting, the issues facing students today.

There has been very little notice given by the GSA to the University’s graduate students about these constitutional changes. This is yet another indicator of the opaqueness, and subsequent deficit of student involvement, that plagues the proper functioning of the GSA as a democratic body.

For this reason, graduate students should take the action that is available to them and push back against the transformation of their Representative Council into a purely administrative ivory tower.

 

*To have a say about the proposed changes, graduate students can join the student forum scheduled for 4pm 15 February 2022, and submit written feedback to the General Secretary before 5pm on Tuesday 22 February 2022.


Conflict of Interest: Elyssia Bugg ran for the GSA Environment Office in the 2021 Elections with the Left Action ticket.
This piece was submitted to Farrago as an opinion piece.
Image provided by the University of Melbourne.

 
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