For the last year and a half, the Young Liberals currently holding the presidency of the Wollongong Undergraduate Students Association (WUSA) have used the position to proclaim whatever right wing thing pops into their head – from celebrating the queen (“long may she reign”), to posing with Bibles and baby Jesus on the union’s Facebook page, to meeting up with Liberal education minister Simon Birmingham to discuss his exciting higher education “reforms”.
Now the WUSA leadership is becoming even more petulant, and more isolated, as it lashes out at “political extremists” – a category that apparently includes anyone who opposes the government’s attacks on students.
It started with the 2017 budget. While hundreds of students protested against the government’s attempts to raise fees and slash university funding by $2.8 billion, Jasper Brewer, the WUSA president, appeared on ABC Illawarra radio and in the Illawarra Mercury, telling any journalist who would listen how he welcomed the budget as “equitable”, and that students can and should pay more for their degrees.
Unsurprisingly, this was met by a less-than-silent majority. When Brewer turned up to heckle a National Union of Students rally, he was booed out by a 200-strong crowd of students.
The Young Liberals aren’t just using WUSA as a platform to support university fee increases. Once they’re done with the union, they plan to shut it down. For the last two years, they’ve deliberately led the union towards bankruptcy. They have not requested any money from the university, they’ve wound up operations of the union’s only source of revenue, the “book bank”, and they have recommended to the university’s “independent review” of student representation that WUSA be dissolved.
But Brewer and his coterie of boat shoe-wearing mates have faced a massive backlash from students, which is now turning into an organised revolt. The campaign “Save UOW Student Union – Stop the Liberals” has collected more than 300 student signatures. Last week, it forced a special general meeting of the union to overturn the Liberals’ plans. Students rallied to vote for motions condemning Brewer’s leadership and calling on the University of Wollongong to drop its review into student representation and to reject calls for WUSA to be dissolved, restructured or left unfunded.
The meeting voted unanimously for Brewer to retract publicly his support for Turnbull’s budget or resign immediately. Brewer’s response was to call the meeting a “fake SGM” and the students participating “frauds”.
First year student Ceridwen Bush argued at the meeting that students need activist student unions now more than ever:
“Students and young workers are being attacked from every angle, from fee increases to the housing affordability crisis to cuts to weekend penalty rates. In the Illawarra dozens of businesses have been exposed paying students starvation wages well below award rates. We need independent student unions to organise a fightback for our rights on every front.”
With the Young Liberals thoroughly discredited, the campaign is now focused on university management, which is currently reviewing the future of student representation.
The campaign’s main concern is that an independent, democratic student-run union will be replaced by fig leaf representation on boards or committees under the university’s direction. Bush said: “The university needs to drop the Young Liberals’ review into student representation and commit to WUSA continuing to exist and commit to WUSA continuing to have funding”.