The importance of independent representation

I had my first ever article published on the ABC The Drum site, which they titled A Foreign Despair. It’s predominantly a look at the welfare issues facing international students, and points to policy gaps and lack of action, as well as inadequacies in our national infrastructure. I finish by highlighting the importance of an independent, national voice for international students in Australia, something that’s been missing since Master Sheng and his crew took over the old NLC in a truly unscrupulous way (and some might argue there’s a legal case in it). CAPA has been very active in supporting international students, and has had international student officers for decades on our Council, but we believe this student population needs its own independent national body once again, with whom we will work closely to cover postgrad issues for internationals.

This brings me to the importance more broadly of democratic representation, especially where there is taxation (yes, that old phrase). Of course I’m referring to the devastating effects of so-called Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU), whereby universities have had to fund student associations, leading to the closure of many of them across the country where uni administrations have failed to be supportive. Too many that are surviving are doing so by amalgamating the postgrad and undergrad bodies, and sometimes also the overseas student associations (OSAs), leading to the bizarre situation where undergrads are the presidents and typically hold the majority of the elected positions with postgrads usually only having one dedicated spot on these councils.

So I made a claim at the Universities Australia conference last week that if there must be amalgamations, there should be a constitutional requirement that the presidents be postgrads. One can imagine the response from undergrads, but even a postgrad campus president asserted that this would be undemocratic and elitist. I argue that it is simply ensuring that representation is done by those best placed to represent their constituents – that is, postgrads by definition all have undergraduate qualifications and so are well able to represent that cohort, but undergrads are clearly not in a position to represent their postgraduate colleagues. How can a 19 or 20 year old in the middle of their first degree, often still living at home and having never had a career possibly represent the average 34-year-old postgrad? How could they represent someone like me – a 39 year old mother of three doing my fourth degree (1 undergrad, 2 postgrad coursework, & now the PhD), having had a couple of careers, including management experience?

Now imagine a postgrad officer on the amalgamated bodies, which in all the examples we’ve seen in Australia consist almost exclusively of undergraduate members. These undergrads make their factional deals about electing office bearers, as they are party political. The postgrads by and large are issues-focused people who got involved in representation because they’ve seen, heard and experienced firsthand the many things that can go wrong in the academy. They’re put off by the intense party political environment of the council, and can’t get much support or resources specific to postgrads, as the undergrads don’t see the need for such things (eg dedicated postgrad facilities and advocates, postgrad-specific publications, or indeed, in the case of a number of these amalgamated bodies, paying CAPA’s annual fees to ensure national representation for postgrads, though they continue to pay their NUS fees).

Why do postgrads allow ourselves to play subaltern to undergraduate hegemony? I know some out there will attest to the hegemons’ relations with the government… and Imma let you finish. I don’t know of any student association that would allow men to serve as women’s officers, nor local students as international officers. It’s time we insisted that undergrads stop serving as peak representatives on bodies responsible for postgrads. And although postgrads could represent the undergrads, quite honestly, most of us don’t want to. We believe that those currently undertaking undergrad degrees are best placed to represent themselves, and we ask for the same recognition in return.

In these times of severe resource scarcity due to the disastrous VSU legislation and the Opposition’s continued stonewalling on the Student Services and Amenities Bill, we’re going to have to speak up for our right to independent representation, advocacy and support. Postgraduate students, both coursework and research, are already important, active members of Australian society, and they’ve returned to study to increase their value in the knowledge economy. They make the difficult choice to live with financial stress and insecurity through additional study in hopes of a return on that investment later, and for some, simply because engagement with learning and critical thinking is a lifelong passion. As a society, we need to collectively value the contributions made by students during and after their period of study, and one of the many ways we can do this is by insisting on independent representation.

Who’s going to help me get this #RIOT going?