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Smoke and Mirrors

Union : noun “the action of joining together or the fact of being joined together, especially in a political context. A society or association formed by people with a common interest or purpose” [Oxford Dictionary]

Historically, the student union of a university organises activities, provides welfare services and represents the students’ political interests [Collins Dictionary]

The Collins Dictionary definition aligns with the Tasmania University Union’s constitution. It says that the Union provides information and support to students, it represents students, and it aims to promote the livelihood of students in almost every aspect.

Nevertheless, the strategic review commissioned by the TUU Board of Management discovered that the Union fails in trying to do these things. In fact, the review team found the historic organisation to be overwhelmed with large-scale, systemic issues.

The large sign outside the TUU building proclaims, “Tasmania University Union. Serving students since 1899.” The review concludes that the TUU is currently not doing what it was established to do – serve students. The review obtained by Togatus reveal issues at the very core of the Union: it’s not representative. It’s not transparent. It struggles to make effective decisions.

After the TUU was informed of a lack of transparency with the students they are supposed to represent, the Board convened to discuss the results of the review six months after receiving it, on the 21 March 2018.

After the TUU was given the report indicting the organisation for struggling to make decisions for students, there is still no decision made regarding releasing the report to the public. The fact that the meeting in March was made months after the report’s release only supports the strategic review’s claims of a failure of transparency.

This is the sort of behaviour the review concerns, especially since the report specifically says, “the review warrants immediate action.” The language used by the review team is consistently serious throughout the report.

“The overall picture that emerged from the review is that the TUU is increasingly becoming irrelevant to students and the University as a whole.”

This opinion was constructed from extensive interviews with UTas students, teachers and TUU staff, and the vast majority told them they questioned the TUU’s relevance. The University itself told the review team they questioned if the TUU can do what they set out to do in 1899. Even TUU members were not able to tell the review team what the TUU’s mission and objectives are.

The conclusion of these issues was that continuing the TUU’s current operation and structure is not an option. The report, however, had two suggestions. Both very drastic but, in the eyes of the review team, necessary to reestablish the TUU as an effective organisation.

Jess Robinson, the TUU State President also said, “The TUU as it stands can’t stay the same, it needs to change.”

So, what does this mean? It is vital that students have some kind of representation and expression. The report suggests that the student voice can be organised by the University Council and Senate if the Union is dissolved. No matter what, there will have to be a platform for students to have a voice within the University, even if that is not through a student union.

The second option of re-establishing the TUU as an entirely new entity is nearly as drastic as dissolving the Union and will not be easy to implement, but it is the option the review team ultimately supported. The team expressed that the new organisation must be focused on student welfare and must be relevant and representative of students in a way that the TUU has been identified as lacking.

Even the student representatives were shocked by the results of the strategic review. Jess told Togatus, “I think it was hoped that the strategic review would come back and plump egos. Instead it was a slap across the face.”

No matter what, moving forward is going to have a huge impact on students and the future of the University. Jess agreed with the scope of the results, “This affects a lot of people. The ripple just keeps going out and out.” To some extent, warrants metaphorical yellow caution tape around the whole situation.

Caution, but not deception or dishonesty.

The report goes into extensive detail about how to create a new entity which will accurately represent UTas students. This includes a new student executive branch who will be employed, not elected.

Another recommendation is a professional communications manager, because the review team found serious communication issues at all levels within the TUU, including between student representatives and TUU staff, as well as with the general student population.

A once-in-a-generation opportunity has been given to the TUU to right the systemic wrongs in the organisation. Instead, a third option departing from the recommendations outlined in the review will be implemented, which is not surprising considering the discomforting conclusion of the review and the radical suggested remedies.

Jess believes there is a better choice outside of dissolving or restructuring the Union,  “Personally I don’t think that [the findings of the review] are the best. I don’t think they benefit everyone. They sort of cater for one or the other.”

By trying to come up with an internal solution to its own demonstrably failed decision making structure, the TUU is, in essence, trying to pull itself up by its bootstraps. Shouldn’t the students they serve and represent be a part of that decision-making process?

Those same people who the report identifies as being underrepresented are being excluded from any say in righting these wrongs. The review makes clear that the TUU fails to represent the large quantities of distance students, mature aged students and international students. These are the very students who should be involved in the processes of the organisation that represents them.

“The TUU is fraught with dark black holes where things have fallen through in the past. You can come stick duct tape over them but that will only last so long,” Jess said, with regret.
There’s still so much that UTas students don’t know about the review, but no matter what, the Union is supposed to advocate for students. This review cannot be something that disappears in a black hole. Students need to have a say in what their time at the University of Tasmania will look like.

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