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State of Our Union

Report demands comprehensive overhaul of student union.

After three years of speculation, a comprehensive strategic review of the Tasmania University Union (TUU) conducted by the LH Martin institute was received by the TUU Board of Management (BoM) in September last year, recommending total reestablishment of core TUU operations.

The report, which was commissioned by the BoM in March 2017, calls for sweeping reform of the Union’s structure and services, and concludes that “the issues identified by the review warrant immediate action.”

In a copy of the review obtained by Togatus, a series of systemic structural issues within the TUU are identified, concluding that the organisation is not transparent, and fails to represent UTas students. The review team also raised concerns of organisational bureaucracy, and questioned the ability of the TUU to make effective decisions.

The review, which was first mentioned in BoM minutes in late 2014, was conducted between April and September last year and cited interviews with the UTas Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, TUU staff, student representatives and UTas students.

According to the review team, the TUU is not representative of the UTas student body, and found the organisation to be largely irrelevant to distance and mature age students. The review found that the University’s growing international student population was most appreciative of the support functions of the organisation as a largely full-time on-campus cohort.

The team found that there are elements of the TUU which work effectively for the welfare of UTas students, including Clubs and Societies, Togatus and the student advocacy groups. It was acknowledged that Clubs and Societies has a separate budget and administration from the TUU. The review suggests that going forward, all three of these entities should continue to operate independently from the TUU.

The report also recognised poor communication within the organisation. The communication between TUU and the student body was identified as a “flawed and a serious problem.” The team also found the communication between the professional TUU staff and the elected student representatives as unsatisfactory and hampered by demarcation disputes.

The lack of transparency within the Union was identified as a major problem. The review found opacity in TUU affairs was most apparent in operational matters, such as budget, which was made public for the first time in 2017 but has yet to be released this year.

When members of the TUU were interviewed, they struggled to answer what the organisation’s missions and objectives were.

In the strategic review, it was mentioned that “mostly everyone” the review team spoke to questioned the relevance of the TUU.

This report’s conclusion outlines two options to remedy the Union’s problems, but emphasises that serious overhaul must be made immediately.

The report first drafts a drastic plan of action that would dissolve the TUU completely and transfer its assets to the University, which would continue to operate TUU services. The review team found that the University lacks confidence in the TUU’s ability to do its job. It found that the TUU’s structure is inefficient, complex and cumbersome. This analysis, coupled with the information of the TUU being found to be irrelevant to most people, prompted the review team to suggest that this option is seriously considered.

Option two is to reestablish the TUU in a way that will better reflect the student body and represent their interests. The new organisation would restructure to become a professional student executive, employed full-time by the University.

This option requires a complete overhaul of the TUU, reconstituted as a new entity focused entirely on student welfare. The Board of Management would be replaced with a Board of Governance and “the student executive must be alumni and reflect all students across all campuses.”

The second option means the current student representative councils would be dissolved, which the report found to lack engagement with all parts of the UTas student population as a consequence of an unreliable democratic process.

The student representative elections were marked as a significant cause for concern because the vast majority of UTas students do not vote. The last election saw just 610 UTas students vote in the election, a decrease from 900 students in 2016, which constitutes roughly 2 per cent of the UTas student population. The review team said, “such a small turnout raises questions about the legitimacy of the elected representatives and their mandates and student involvement in TUU activities.”

The review also suggests that if the TUU is reconstituted, a professional communications manager should be implemented to resolve the communication problems in the current organisation.

Both options explicitly identify the Union as incapable of operating effectively in its current form. The review team suggested that if the University moves forward to establish a new entity, a new mission statement would also need to be developed, to ensure that the focus is entirely on student welfare.

Jess Robinson, the TUU State President said the options recommended by the strategic review team will not be implemented. Instead, she hoped the decision will “take the best parts of what the review gave us and create something even better.”

Robinson told Togatus the review is now a “focus point” in picking a pathway to move forward.

Jenny Hart, Executive Officer for the TUU, did not respond to Togatus’s request for comment before publication.

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