Recently, a collection of Clubs and Societies representatives gathered for a conference to express concerns over a proposed shake-up to the way student clubs are managed at the University of Newcastle. Yak Media was there to bring you this report.
Last month, a Facebook post on the private UON Club/Society Executives Group page alerted student clubs’ leaders to a University-led plan to see the Clubs Management wing of Student Central abolished in favour of granting oversight of clubs to the University of Newcastle Students’ Association (UNSA).
The post, made by Isabelle Cox, Vice-President of Newcastle Christian Students,’ outlined dismay over the University’s lack of consultation with students, and uncertainties surrounding the affiliation status of clubs under UNSA.
The change comes as part of a proposed staffing restructure at UON which comprises the streamlining of courses, a focus on workplace-ready graduates and staffing reductions in a bid to save the University’s worsening financial position.
According to Anthony Molinia, Chief Information Officer at UON, the University’s current structure is not financially sustainable. Universities are essentially a business, he said, and like any successful business they must expand and contract with the economy as they have become largely driven by market demand.
Mr Molinia said the planned changes are designed to make managing and running clubs more effective and efficient, making better use of the University’s support services. It is also hoped the changes will provide more opportunity for people to join or start a Club or Society.
Currently, to set up a club at UON, executives must affiliate under one of four entities – Student Central, NUSport, Student Living or UNSA. Under the restructure, all clubs currently affiliated with Student Central will be required to affiliate under UNSA. UNSA President, Luka Harrison, has thrown his support behind the move, telling Yak the proposal is “a great idea.”
The Association’s General Manager, Georgia Killick, believes UNSA is better resourced to support clubs.
“We have industry-leading clubs technology. We have a website that has clubs management built into it, so it makes it that much easier for us to have a clear picture of how many clubs we have, how many students are engaging, who club leadership is and how people contact the club. It also supports the club’s administration of its membership list…”
UNSA employs a full-time Clubs Support Officer, Jessica Schuhmacer, and the Ms Killick is confident Ms Schuhmacer has good capacity to take on more work.
In the wake of the Facebook post, a ‘Conference of Concerned Clubs,’ convened by UoN Liberal Students, took place at NUspace on 24 April. Club leaders expressed concerns about a lack of information on the changes and possible job losses within Student Central. They questioned UNSA’s fitness and capacity to manage clubs.
Clubs highlighted the reconstituting process associated with UNSA affiliation, citing the time and effort involved in drafting constitutions. They raised concerns about political tones within UNSA as well as privacy, questioning whether UNSA would be granted access to membership lists and meeting minutes. They also discussed the need for dispute resolution mechanisms to be set up to allow unfavourable decisions to be reviewed.
Newcastle Christian Students, currently affiliated with Student Central and previously affiliated with NUSA, discussed UNSA’s handling of their application of affiliation.
Newcastle Christian Students’ President told the Conference UNSA had requested changes to the group’s “aims as a club,” insisting the aims were not “diverse” enough, despite the group’s constitution and aims being approved by Student Central and the former NUSA. The President said the club was rejected and told to appeal to the UNSA Student Representative Council. At the time of publication, the club has not received a response.
Students of UniChurch said the targeting of fellow Christian clubs was cause for alarm.
“We have previously spoken highly of the University’s management of Clubs. The Student Central model of Clubs’ management is trusted and impartial,” the statement said.
“UNSA has previously stated their intention to be A-Political, but their actions stand in stark contrast to their words. Student Unions are incredibly politicised and controlled by political operators. Handing control to UNSA would see politicised decisions made regarding Clubs’ funding, affiliation status, sharing of resources, and participation at O-Week.”
“Our Student Central is an independent umpire on the campus that holds no fear or favour when dealing with the administration of clubs and societies,” the statement continued, “Student Central has done a fantastic job managing Clubs and Societies over the years and is still thriving. This stands in stark contrast to the political bastardry present in UNSA.”
Following the Clubs Conference, Yak spoke to the President and General Manager of UNSA, who said it was disappointing UON Liberal Students had not invited UNSA to speak at the meeting.
“If they had invited us to come and attend their concerns meeting, we absolutely would have attended. We’re student-governed, and students are our primary stakeholders, so it is absolutely important to us that we represent students,” Georgia Killick said.
“Regardless of faith, beliefs, any of that stuff, all University of Newcastle students are represented by UNSA.”
Ms Killick also refuted allegations levelled by UON Liberal Students surrounding impartiality.
“Ultimately we are governed by an elected student representative body. We don’t ask on students’ applications which political club they affiliate with because honestly, it has no relevance or bearing on activities of UNSA.”
In response to privacy concerns about UNSA potentially obtaining club documents and membership lists, Ms Killick said, “In order to view our membership list of UNSA, you actually need to apply at UNSA and constitutionally (this is outlined in the UNSA constitution) you need to provide reasons as to why you need to see that list and what you plan on doing with that information.
“Due to the Privacy Act, the number of staff even within UNSA that can view that kind of information is extremely minimal.”
Ms Killick addressed Newcastle Christian Students’ concern over UNSA’s independence in granting affiliation by promising an independent review board will be set up to deal with disputes.
“[We’re having some] terms of reference drafted for how that appeal process will look. It’ll have a number of key stakeholders on it that would be separate to UNSA,” she said.
The Chief Information Officer emphasised UNSA and Clubs are both accountable to the University. Mr Molinia said if a major conflict were to arise between UNSA and a club, the University would likely play a role in finding a resolution.
UNSA has declared opposition to the University’s overall restructure and staff cuts, with Luka Harrison sending out an official statement of support for the National Tertiary Educators’ Union petition against the cuts. In his statement he voiced criticism for cutting staff, while the Vice-Chancellor continues to earn “close to 7 figures.”
The issue of clubs management restructuring was not raised in question time at the first of five Student Consultation Forums hosted by UNSA at Callaghan last week. The meeting ended with many audience questions leftover and it is possible they will be raised at the next Consultation Forum, which is currently slated to occur in College groups.
Newcastle Christian Students were, however, observed speaking to Vice-Chancellor Alex Zelinski and Deputy Vice-Chancellor Mark Hoffman at the end of the seminar. Newcastle Christian Students told Yak the Vice-Chancellor acknowledged there are issues to be ironed out and repeated Georgia Killick’s assertion that there will be an independent review process installed to deal with affiliation disputes. The Vice-Chancellor also stated he and the University support freedom of religion, and there should be no reason a Christian Club is not allowed to affiliate.
UON Liberal Students’ President, Blake Keating, said he was pleased the Vice-Chancellor is taking student feedback but repeated his support for retaining Student Central’s Clubs division.
Mr Keating also fired back at Ms Killick’s assertion of independence, saying “When an election process is so skewed to favour one side, you can hardly call it proper or democratic.
“As for the General Manager complaining about not getting a reply from us; our position is that we are not a member of her Union, we do not want to be a member of her Union and we will not be compelled into engaging with something we are totally opposed to,” Mr Keating continued.
“We again call on the Vice-Chancellor and the administrators at the university to ensure that Student Central is available for clubs that wish to continue to affiliate there rather than being forced to become a member of UNSA that has a clear political motive to mess around with the administration of Clubs.”
If you are a member of a UON student club and would like to learn more about what the changes will mean for you, you should attend the next Student Consultation Forum.
Authors: Callum Pull, Lauren Freemantle, and Leanne Elliott, Staff Writers.
Feature Image by Lauren Freemantle.