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.”
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“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.