Why aren’t uni students jumping to the Left?

You'd think the debate over fee regulation would send student politicians Leftward, but the reality is very different, write Sally Whyte and Myriam Robin.

Education Minister Christopher Pyne has unveiled one of the most dramatic plans to reshape education in recent memory. Fee deregulation could mean today’s students could soon graduate with far more debt than they would have carried before the deregulation was announced. Normally, student opposition to such measures would result in a leftward swing in student politics. But at both Melbourne University and the University of Adelaide, a confluence of factors have resulted in poorer-than-usual showings for the campus’ Left factions. For much of the past decade, the University of Adelaide’s student union has been reliably controlled by the Labor Left faction, ruling in alliance with a ticket of unaffiliated left-wing candidates. But this grouping has lost control of some of its most totemic positions to students affiliated with the Liberal Party. And at the University of Melbourne, control of the student presidency has passed for the first time in years to a candidate from the More Activities ticket, helped into the position by a popular candidate and preferences from the Labor Right and Socialist Alternative factions. At the University of Adelaide Liberal Club, the mood is jubilant. “We see this as a big success,” a Liberal student pollie told Crikey. “Next year will see a big debate on education reform, and the students at Adelaide Uni are voting for Liberals.” As well as a spot on the union board, which controls the purse strings of the student union, the position of education officer also went to a Liberal student. The Liberals are also expected to win the position of women’s officer. Liberal ticket leader Robert Katsambis told Crikey the Left leadership of the union had failed to give students value for their memberships. His ticket campaigned on subsidised car parking, a doubling of the Student Representative Council's existing free breakfast program, and more parties for students. Left sources, however, were sceptical the Liberals' better showing had anything to do with their policies or with the failure of the current leadership, telling Crikey it was all about preference flows. The Libs, the Labor Right, and another ticket controlled by international students all fed preferences to each other, and they often didn’t even compete for the same positions. Meanwhile, the Labor Left ticket was hamstrung after Socialist Alternative candidates refused to send preferences its way. Crikey understands early attempts at negotiation with the Labor Right also broke down, leading Student Unity to endorse the Liberals instead. Labor Left student leaders are filthy at the Labor Right and Socialist Alternative tickets for refusing to deal (though both sides have different stories as to why negotiations fell apart), and many are viewing the disappointing result for the Left as self-inflicted. The changes to education being mooted in Canberra didn’t lead to a higher-than-normal turnout -- but then, all tickets appeared to campaign predominantly on campus issues. Meanwhile, at Melbourne, personality has played a bigger role than preference flows, with the student union presidency going to a non-Labor Left candidate for the first time in many years. While the political blocs at the university change their preference deals annually, this year a ticket calling itself “ignite” had candidates from both Labor Right, the clubs and activities faction and the Socialist Alternative, leaving Labor Left on its own. President-elect Rachel Withers, from the “ignite” ticket” told Crikey that most tickets weren’t focusing on federal politics in their campaigns but on how they would spend students’ money collected through the student services and amenities fee. She says the lack of student engagement with the union is "depressing". Withers will need to work with mostly Left-aligned office bearers and a students' council (which controls spending) with a Labor Right majority next year . When asked about her own political leanings, Withers was coy, saying, “I really do find it irrelevant, I would never not want to run with someone because of their political beliefs." “It's a student union, it's not federal politics -- I think it's important that everybody has student interests in mind, not their own. Your exact location on the Left-Rright spectrum doesn't matter that much.” Withers is one of the current clubs and societies officers, after spending 2013 as president of the Melbourne Arts Students Society. At Melbourne’s RMIT, where students are voting all this week, the university’s Liberal Club is running for the first time in recent memory, although Crikey is told the club is without a candidate for women’s officer. While the club had one woman willing to run, it couldn’t find another two women to nominate her so she could appear on the ballot. Candidate Anthony D’Angelo, who formed the university’s Liberal Club earlier this year, is also the Liberal candidate for the safe Labor seat of Northcote at the upcoming Victorian election. At the Australian National University, which held its elections two weeks ago, turnout was significantly higher than in recent years. This could be because, as campus insiders told Crikey, student politicians at ANU were actively and visibly campaigning on the higher federal education changes. The number of candidates also increased -- last year one group scooped up many of the positions unopposed, but this year there were three tickets running. Crikey understands it was the most fiercely contested election since the student association began keeping records in 2002. However, ANU is a strange campus in that none of the tickets had any formal allegiances to any political party. Student rag Woroni reported that most voters didn’t appear to follow the tickets, instead voting for a mix of candidates of their own choosing. The final result was split three ways between the three tickets. Most campuses are still waiting on their election results, or will be voting in coming weeks. But if early indicators are any guide, at a campus level, broader political issues rarely play out the way you’d expect them to.

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6 thoughts on “Why aren’t uni students jumping to the Left?

  1. Stand Up Shill

    Withers seems out of touch if she thinks the University of Melbourne election campaigns were not focusing on changes to tertiary education. Most of ignite’s campaigners at University of Melbourne were spruiking opposition to fee deregulation as one of their main party platforms. Their president was a bit of a wildcard with her opposition to overtly political policy, in favour of events and parties, instead. Her association with More Activities and a clubs and societies on campus made her a bit of a BNOC and this was largely how she was elected. So I don’t think unions across Australia are lurching to the right or becoming more apolitical; Withers represents a party opposed to fee dereg, the other major party at UniMelb (Stand Up) is also against fee dereg, and this was one of the main platforms for both parties. Additionally, Left Action (aligned with Socialist Alternative) ran a very political campaign this year, focusing on the Abbott government. Meanwhile, Fresh (the Liberal aligned ticket) picked up less votes this year than they did last year and they didn’t even campaign last year! Political leanings definitely does matter.

  2. Kyle Webb


    I’m a currently serving OB at UMSU, and from my perspective (as an independent), there has certainly been a lot of interest from students in how the union engages with the broader campus community. Having said that, most of the factions involved in this election are against fee deregulation, and I believe that to be a wider trend at unimelb. I would say that opposition towards fee deregulation is quite strong, even if students don’t necessarily hit the streets for an old fashioned rally. Nor do I think that fee deregulation is necessarily a thing of the ‘left’.

  3. The Old Bill

    Ah the youth of today. In my time we were too busy sinking kegs and having sit ins, plus the odd punch up with the Tony Abbott wimps from the young libs. These days however, you end up owing money and perhaps even interest on it for the rest of your life, so you have to concentrate on passing everything instead. Caring for solo mothers and social justice isn’t a viable option for a student anymore. Time wasted on such causes will add at least $50,000 to your HECS debt.

  4. Scott

    I think Winston Churchill said it best

    “If you’re not a liberal at 20 you have no heart..if you are not a conservative at 40 you have no brain”

    Obviously liberal in this context is left wing…I was much the same in the younger years…railing against the corporate giants and the injustice of it all. And then you become part of the corporate world and realise it isn’t that unjust at all.

  5. AR

    Many radical lefties march to a different drum once they have hostages to fortune – ie children, debts, mortgage not necessarily in that order.
    Wonder if conscription would wake them up?

  6. Chris Hartwell

    Oh it’s still unjust. You just shut up because it’s that injustice that puts food on your table. Don’t bite the hand that feeds and all that.

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