Sweeping changes have been proposed to the constitution of the Queensland University of Technology Student Guild, which are a major attack on independent and democratic student unionism.
The executive of the guild has argued that these changes will improve the stability of the peak student representative body at QUT. But the changes include the introduction of a “board of directors” with unfettered power to control the guild’s operations. This body is to be made up of six student representatives elected on two-year, rotating terms. Four unelected people will also sit on the board, including a “community professional”, a QUT alumni, the general manager and a representative of the university appointed by the vice-chancellor. All members of the board can motion for the dismissal of another member, and there is no right of appeal. The board also has the power to delegate its authority to unelected committees or even individuals.
There is also a proposed student representative committee, to be elected every year. This body has no formal power defined in the constitution, meaning the board has the authority to determine how it meets, and decide to what degree it can influence the actions of the guild. Further, the proposed constitution no longer mandates the election of an environment officer, which is a major omission given the leading role students are playing nationally in environmental activism.
Student general meetings, which should be the highest body for decision making in the guild, would be essentially toothless in the new structure. Decisions made by general meetings would not be binding on the board, and the board could choose to ignore general meetings without notifying students. Nor are referendums mentioned in the proposed constitution.
These changes are the most serious threat to democratic student unionism at QUT for a very long time. The new board of directors would have essentially dictatorial powers with no mechanism for student oversight. Not only would unelected appointees with no accountability to students be on this body, but the university would be given direct influence over the operations of the guild, through the vice-chancellor’s appointee. The guild executive has argued that this would allow for a better relationship between the guild and university. This is just a euphemism for ambitious bureaucrats cosying up to administration and undermining the self-organisation of students.
Student unions exist because the interests of students and the university administration are fundamentally opposed. Students must be able to organise against the university when the university wants to cut courses, costs and teaching conditions. In many universities right now, students must be able to organise against the introduction of trimesters and right wing corporate influence in courses, such as the Ramsay Centre’s repeated attempts to establish a degree for Western civilisation. This is compromised when the university administration can have a say in what student organisations do.
To top things off, the guild executive has set out an extremely short timeline for the changes to be confirmed. Following months of negotiations with the university, the guild released the draft on 19 July, and has set 6 August as the date the changes will be put to council. With such short notice, the opportunity for students and councillors on the guild to scrutinise and campaign against the changes has been seriously limited.
Student democracy is important. With the recently elected Morrison government, there is sure to be a need for students and staff to organise to defend our rights from right wing attacks. It is vital that activists everywhere organise against any attack on the democracy and independence of student unions.