‘Disengaged’ and ‘Disconnected’: The Education Committee, Explained, Part 1

By Skanda Panditharatne

Education Officer Harry Needham has called a meeting this week to reform the ANUSA Education Committee, citing “significant issues” with its functionality and effectiveness. But what is the Education Committee, anyway? What does it do, and why is it in such need of reform? Observer spoke to past, present, and future ANUSA Education Officers, and took a deep look at the Education Committee and Australian education activism more broadly, to work out what’s caused the current crisis – and why students should care about it in the first place.

The History of the Education Committee, Briefly

The constitutional function of the Education Committee (EdCom) is “to promote awareness on campus of education issues, and to facilitate action and discussion on issues of particular concern to the education sector as it relates to the ANU”. What this mean in practice is a matter of some debate – and to understand it, we have to consider the tangled history of EdCom.

The first iteration of the ‘Education Committee’ was formed in 1963, to support a Melbourne University-based campaign to push for better education funding. The Education Officer sat on the ANUSA SRC from 1965, and the campaign enjoyed a dedicated SRC subcommittee by 1966. EdCom later merged with other groups, was renamed a number of times, and continued to campaign for better education. The EdCom as we know it today was created in 1997, when a number of collectives were dissolved, and merged into ANUSA departments, or transferred to an Officer position.

Needham himself will be publishing an Op Ed in the Education pullout of this week’s Woroni about the history of EdCom and the challenges it faces. He argues that over the years, EdCom has repeatedly faced “many of the same problems – such as low attendance, perceptions of political bias, and debates over its methods” – problems that seemingly still plague EdCom to this day.

Today, the EdCom is chaired by the Education Officer, who is elected through the ANUSA elections each year and who sits on the ANUSA Executive. This officer is responsible for the administration and running of the committee – although as we will see, whether they control the committee, or are controlled by it, is a matter of some debate.

What Does EdCom Do in Practice, Though?

The committee itself, which all undergraduate ANU students are members of, is required to hold meetings twice per teaching period, but it’s through its political actions, rather than meetings, that most students will be familiar with its work.

Needham says that most of the work of EdCom this year has been “outwardly focused”, through campaigns against government cuts to education. EdCom has run and collaborated in political protests such as the National Day of Action against Federal Government cuts to education funding and the recent protest against Scott Morrison’s new government. This is fairly traditional work for the Education Committee – in 2016 it ran an ‘Education Graveyard’ protest against cuts, and in 2014 an ‘Unhappy Birthday Party’ for then-Education Minister Christopher Pyne.

In this role, EdCom – and in particular, the Education Officer – often coordinates with the National Union of Students (NUS), the representative body for undergraduate students at many universities across Australia. The Make Education Free Again and Don’t Deport the Athletes to Danger campaigns originate from the NUS Education Officer, but they have received support locally from the ANUSA EdCom.

EdCom also lobbies ANU and governments more directly on issues closer to home. It co-hosted the Student and Staff Forum into the proposed Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation earlier this year, and are working with ANUSA CAP and CASS Reps on a campaign relating to the scrapped Diploma of Languages.

EdCom also considers welfare issues, which are often delegated to a specific Welfare Officer at other Australian universities. This year, it held a meeting on a campaign for changes in housing policy, and last year, it was involved in a campaign against proposed changes to Centrelink payments.

More recently, Needham has brought EdCom into more unfamiliar waters in hosting a talk on ‘The Anthropology of Universities’ later this month. He told Observer that he seeks to continue a “series of discussion based events about the university”. Education Officer-Elect Tanika Sibal told Observer that she plans to continue the Education Series next year.

So, What’s The Problem With EdCom?

The primary issue with EdCom, as Needham sees it, is that “attendance is not representative of the student body”. Attendance is regularly low, Observer can confirm. Needham says that the usual turnout at EdCom meetings is “five or six people” – which, given all undergraduate ANU students are automatically members, is a miniscule percentage of potential attendees.

What happens as a result of this low attendance? According to Needham, tEdCom has become “dominated by particular groups … usually people who are affiliated with the youth wings of the Labor Party or the Socialist Alternative”. Observer reporters attending the meetings have confirmed that the majority of regular EdCom attendees are members of political factions. Needham says the problems were crystalised at the recent protest against Scott Morrison’s new premiership – he cited a “disappointing” turnout as evidence that “there’s a lack of buy-in even from those people who do turn up [to EdCom]”.

2016 ANUSA Education Officer James Connolly agrees with Needham on this point, noting that “engagement with the committee relies on the engagement predominantly of political factions who are most interested in the work of the Committee”. Connolly specifically noted the activity of Socialist Alternative members, saying that during his term, there was just “one active member of the Socialist Alternatives [sic] who didn’t attend my meetings”.

A recent discussion on Facebook group ANU Schmidtposting, in which some students raised concern that the recent protest did not represent their views, may have also played into the need for this week’s meeting. Needham acknowledges that this played a role, but he does argue that the discussion was unrepresentative – as there’s “a whole lot of reasons why people with opinions would not comment on a thread like that” – and quipped that “accusing me of corruption [as one commenter seemingly did] is perhaps a step too far”.

Needham argues that another major, though “less immediate”, issue relates to “constitutional vagueness” regarding the structure and governance of EdCom. He cites a “tension between the collective and the executive position” that is not fully satisfied by section 19 of the ANUSA Constitution, which only notes that “policy proposals of the Committee must be determined by meetings of the Committee”, and that “Education Officer is bound to present this policy proposals to the Executive or the next meeting of the SRC or CRC”. Needham thinks it needs to be made clear whether the Officer’s actions are necessarily bound by EdCom.

In 2017, open conflict between Education Officer Jessy Wu and the Education Committee led to Wu’s resignation in April. Wu had refused to issue a statement publicly condemning ANU’s proposed admissions policy changes before all information had been released, which the committee had called for. Wu was replaced by Robyn Lewis, a member of the Greens, who criticised Wu for “disregard[ing] the will of the committee”, and promised that “if the committee and student body wish a campaign to be run, then that campaign [will] be run”.

Speaking to Observer, Lewis disagreed that the current system necessarily led to conflict between EdCom and the Education Officer. She said that she “found the committee to be very supportive” and had a “great relationship” with them. Lewis argued that problems were caused by Education Officers not “pay[ing] enough attention to the committee and [being] too pressured by the president or other exec to carry out an agenda that’s very top down”. In what is perhaps an implicit criticism of Needham and Wu, Lewis said that “If the Education Officer isn’t supportive and engaged with the committee, or doesn’t know how to organise, or run a campaign, then naturally the people who might be interested will disengage.”

Connolly, the 2016 Education Officer, thinks that the structure of the Education Officer role itself is responsible for some of these tensions. He says that “I don’t think the Education Officer should be a member of the [ANUSA] Executive”, arguing that “the Committee and the Officer would operate more harmoniously if the Officer was more independent of the obligations that come with being a member of the Executive just as Department Officers are”. Needham doesn’t seem to want to go that far – but he does have his own plan for reform.

So, How Do People Want to Reform EdCom?

Needham wants this week’s meeting to get started on drafting terms of reference for reforming EdCom. He has a number of suggestions for what these terms of reference might look like – but he does stress, repeatedly, that they are just suggestions, and that they represent his own views rather than those of ANUSA.

Overall, Needham wants “more of a structure” to EdCom, primarily achieved through two deputy roles. He believes that these deputies, similar to deputies in the Women’s Department and Queer* Department, would create more “buy-in” and allow the Education Officer to delegate duties. Education Officer-Elect Tanika Sibal says that she “fully support[s]” the proposal. Unsuccessful Education Officer candidate Niall Cummins similarly proposed introducing deputies for the position in his election policy earlier this year, which he suggested could be drawn from the pool of ANUSA Gen Reps.

In response to questions from Observer suggesting that such a deputy role could merely entrench the alleged influence of factions, Needham proposes what he admits will “probably be controversial” – he wants the first deputies to be appointed by the Education Officer following an application process, rather than elected by the committee, saying that “if [the current EdCom] isn’t inclusive and diverse, you end up with a feedback loop [through elections]”. To further limit factional influence, he wants to mandate that all attendees must sign in with their student number, to prove they are ANU students. Non-student members of the Socialist Alternative faction were infamously removed from an ANUSA SRC earlier this year.

Should the Education Officer be bound by EdCom? Needham says that while it is “received wisdom” that the Education Officer is bound by their committee, “I don’t think that the Education Committee should be able to bind me”, and believes that the Education Officer is not necessarily bound to do more than present policies (ie. not bound to particular actions) by the ANUSA Constitution. The “Ed[ucation] Officer is an elected position – students have put their trust in them”, he says, arguing that it is more democratic for the Officer to not be bound, given that more students vote in the ANUSA Elections than the “handful” that turn up to EdCom. Last year, Needham received 909 votes for Education Officer, while this year Education Officer-elect Tanika Sibal was elected with 858 votes. With this in mind, Needham argues that “the relationship between the committee and the officer must be clearly defined as one in which the only binding power of the committee is to make the officer bring policy proposals to the SRC and not to bind the officer to carry out actions”. Sibal, however, says that in an ideal situation with a large, representative turnout, the Committee should in fact be able to bind the Education Officer, saying that “It is vital that we represent what the students want us to, and this is one way to ensure that this happens”.

What about what Needham admits is a “general lack of awareness about what EdCom is and what it does” amongst the broader student population? He isn’t certain – but he thinks that more regular meetings will help, held fortnightly, at the same time, in the same spot. Connolly agrees that “its hard to build and maintain momentum if meetings are that infrequent”, noting that some collectives and departments hold weekly meetings. Sibal agrees that regular meeting times are crucial – she says it’s the “only proposal” she will be bringing to tomorrow’s meeting, though she also has suggestions relating to merchandise and branding.

Lewis, the 2017 Education Officer, agrees that “there is definitely disengagement”, but disagrees as to whether it is a major problem, noting that “nearly all change in the world is made by small groups of passionate people, so practically it’s probably ok”. She nevertheless admits that “more engagement would be good”, but that she too lacks concrete answers as to why this disengagement has occurred.

However, in relation to the recent, sparsely attended protest against Scott Morrison, Needham says there were specific problems with the messaging of that campaign. He says that there were issues with making it clear that ANUSA was collaborating with other organisations on the protest. He also cites problems with advertising, as despite being told the NUS Education Officer was making designs to be sent out, “that didn’t wind up happening”.

Who is the NUS Education Officer, and what role do they play in the ANUSA Education Committee’s activities? To understand that, we have to address the elephant in the room whenever one considers education activism in Australia – the influence of political factions.

In Part 2 of this explainer, which can be found here, we will consider these issues, and the troubled relationship between the NUS and the ANUSA Education Committee.

2017 ANUSA Education Officer Jessy Wu declined a request for comment.

 

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