Student unions play a pivotal role in representing the interests and needs of students within tertiary educational institutions. This advocacy is particularly important in Australia, where the power imbalance between universities and students has reached increasingly dizzying heights.
Student union structures are countless and often highly complex. You would be hard-pressed to find two student unions in Australia with the same structure. The last few decades have seen student unions increasingly incorporating a Board of Directors into their organisational structures.
The QUT Student Guild Student Representative Council (SRC) voted recently to support the abolition of its own Board of Directors. The Board has existed within the Guild since 2021, and has been subject to increasing pressure from the SRC about their activities over the past two years.
What is a board?
According to the Australian Institute of Company Directors, a board of directors (‘board’) is responsible for the overall governance, management and strategic direction of the organisation. It has ultimate accountability for the organisation’s activities and performance. Boards are comprised of an organisation’s directors who can only exercise their authority when acting as a collective.
“The role of the board may vary slightly depending on the nature of the organisation. The boards of smaller or newer organisations, or those without paid staff, may have a more operational focus, whereas the boards of larger and more established organisations may take a more strategic approach to their work.
“Boards must decide for themselves how best to contribute to their organisation to make a positive impact and to meet their duties under the law.”
How does the Board work at the Guild?
The Guild’s Board of Directors is established under Part 4 (C9 – 14) of its Constitution.
The Board has general control and management of the administration of the affairs, property and funds of the Guild and must take all reasonable steps to ensure that the Guild complies with its obligations under the QUT Act and the Guild Constitution (C10).
The Board can delegate any or all of its powers and authorities, duties and functions to any person or to any Guild subcommittee. The Board cannot delegate, however: (1) the power to delegate, (2) approval of the Guild’s financial statements, (3) or any function that is a duty imposed on the Board by the Act or by any other law (C14.1).
Even when the Board’s power has been delegated, the Board may continue to exercise all of its functions, including any function that has been delegated, and remains accountable for the exercise of those functions at all times (C14.2).
So, what does this actually mean?
These clauses essentially mean that everything done by the Student Representative Council, the Guild Professional Services, and the Guild itself – even Glass – is done via a delegation of the Board’s powers.
This isn’t explicitly delegated every day and at each instance of power being exercised – for example, if the Secretary of the Guild has an obligation under the Guild Constitution to properly organise an AGM – it’s understood that it is a duty that person must carry out (hopefully).
Though it’s never been tested, these clauses are intended to not only confer power but also legal liability onto the Board for all actions by the Guild. Basically, this means that if the Guild is sued, the Board is probably liable.
Who is on the Guild Board?
The Board is comprised of nine Directors (or board members):
- The majority of board members (usually six members) must be QUT students elected by QUT students. The President of the SRC automatically sits on the Board.
- The General Manager of the Guild sits on the Board (Guild Professional Staff)
- Two independent members sit on the board (one alumni and one business, community, or educational representative)*
*To qualify to sit on the board, the independent board members must not be current QUT students and have each obtained at least 10 years’ practical experience in their relevant area of expertise and appropriate current professional qualifications.
Genesis of the QUT Student Guild Board
The Board didn’t pop up overnight, at the whim of a few power-hungry past SRC members, as some students might believe.
The existence of the Guild Board is inextricably tied to the aftermath of EPIC’s days of controlling the union. EPIC was an LNP-aligned QUT student political party that controlled the Guild from 2012 to 2018.
EPIC SRC members were responsible for some initiatives QUT students might still be familiar with, like the standardised 11:59pm submission time for assignments, the Guild holding the world record for the biggest toga party, the development of the Botanic Bar and establishing QUT Guild social sport (now run by the University).
Notably, EPIC refused to take SSAF money from the university, attempted to withdraw a large sum from the Guild’s investment portfolio to buy a nightclub, and ran an election where all incumbents were elected unopposed – which was subsequently overturned by an Electoral Tribunal.
A fresh election was held, and left-leaning ticket Reach won by a large majority of QUT students. As part of their campaign, they established a mandate for the team to reform the Guild’s constitution as a response to QUT students’ large-scale distrust in EPIC following the uncontested election and their attempts to use Guild funds to buy a bar in the CBD.
Following their election in 2018, Reach embarked on a period of consultation and drafting of the new Guild constitution, which went through many iterations and included various draft versions of the Board that is in place today.
Current Board member and previous Guild President Olivia Brumm told Glass that there were a few different reasons the Board was established under Reach. The main reason was to separate operations and strategy within the organisation, and another reason was to act as a safeguard against decisions like those made during the EPIC era that had the potential to endanger the organisation financially, reputationally, and in other serious ways.
“[Previously] we had a lot of confusion about roles and responsibilities that were leading to significant issues, and we had no-one who was really looking at the bigger strategic picture of the Guild and how it could maximise its opportunities and help students in the long term. And looking at a future-oriented, five-to-ten-year plan, which is what boards are supposed to do.
“They’re meant to give professional guidance in any areas that elected students are not able to, and are not able to because it’s not within their area of expertise. Things like legal, HR, and financial advice. Things like that where you need the professional advice, but you might also not have the staffing capabilities, for example, a full-time lawyer on staff.
“The other significant reason was that there were decisions being made that endangered the organisation – financially, reputationally, in a whole range of ways that if they had gone through, would have been disastrous.”
Brumm said that one of the main reasons they identified for constitutional change was that the previous Executive had almost complete control over making long-term decisions based on short-term ideas, like getting re-elected.
“The Executive had almost complete control over making very long-term decisions based on very short-term ideas. And those short-term ideas would be things like getting re-elected. The decisions were things like – we’re going to withdraw millions of dollars from our financial portfolio, which is one of the main ways that the Guild financially sustains itself, as our commercial ventures have suffered from students leaving campus, and COVID.”
“They were going to withdraw millions to buy a bar in the Valley and that idea had no business planning, no long-term thinking, there was no investigation into the viability of that concept, or how it would work as a student-run bar that’s not on campus. There was nothing. And there was no real power within the organisation to stop something like that occurring, which would have been catastrophic for the union being able to continue to operate and serve students.”
Reach was elected in 2018 and again in 2020 on a mandate for constitutional change. They believed that the organisation needed oversight and professional guidance, and that this could be achieved by installing a board made up of majority elected students with help from professional advisors in different areas.
“The Board doesn’t want to be involved in day-to-day operations. It’s not the point of the organisation.”
The Board was finally established in 2021, three years after Reach was elected. Since then, and as the SRC has changed over with increasingly uncontested elections, the Board has faced increasing scrutiny from the SRC over its activities. In 2022, members of the SRC voiced concerns about the absence of a Board Charter, which eventually led to the formulation of such a document.
Do all roads lead to Melbourne?
The growing trend of student unions across Australia incorporating boards into their organisational structures might just date back to one significant event in our history. At Glass, our hypothesis (though yet unproven due to the scarcity of information available freely online) for this shift towards boards traces back to an event in Melbourne: the bankruptcy of the Melbourne University Student Union (UMSU) and the subsequent legal troubles faced by its executives.
In 2004, UMSU went into liquidation after two officers of the student union entered into a $44 million deal for student accommodation, sticking the union with an $11 million bill. This incident prompted universities and student unions nationwide to reevaluate their governance structures, leading to the introduction of more robust corporate governance mechanisms.
The Howard government era, marked in universities by the abolition of voluntary student unionism, and the subsequent introduction of SSAF by the Gillard government, carved out a new role for universities to have influence in student union affairs. As universities now play a pivotal role in funding student unions through SSAF, their concerns and interests hold considerable sway. The memory of the UMSU bankruptcy likely contributed to a general sense of caution in relations between universities and student unions, driving the adoption of board structures to ensure better financial oversight and management within student unions.
Voices against the Board
Debate about the Board’s existence, necessity, and activities has ebbed and flowed over the last four years.
The composition of the Student Representative Council changes with each annual election, and as such, support within the SRC – the very body that brought the Board into existence in the first place – has waned over the past two years.
“From when I started until now, the Board has assumed more and more power. They are involved in every aspect of the organization, from day-to-day business to behind-the-scenes activities. It is my belief that a student union should be – in every part – run by students. This also means students should have aspects to every part of the organization.” – Aaron Bui, Post Grad Officer & SRC member
“In my perspective, the primary role of a Board of Directors should be focused on long-term strategic planning rather than getting involved in the day-to-day issues of the student union. While I acknowledge the importance of having a [Board], I strongly oppose the idea of it being comprised of only one currently elected SRC executive, namely the President.”
“As a student union, it is crucial to ensure that students remain the key decision-makers, and having a diverse representation of multiple current executives and past SRC members in the [Board] is vital for this purpose.”
“In my opinion, restructuring the student union is essential to foster a more inclusive and student-driven environment. Ultimately, an inclusive conversation among all parties, including SRC, [Board], and GPS, is necessary to arrive at a better governance structure, always keeping in mind that the student union should be ultimately run by students.” – Usama Shafiq, Treasurer & SRC member
“The current way that the board is inside the Guild is not viable for our university union…This level of responsibility to students needs to be at the forefront of our minds. It needs to be the main thing you are focusing on. It should be where our time is actually going towards. But up to this point, its not been.” – Harley Manley, Disability Officer & SRC member
Members of student political club SAlt (Socialist Alternative) have held opposition to the Board structure from when constitutional amendments were first proposed, and their stance has remained steadfast.
“I actually think that to say the board is here for good, is here to support students, and the same goes for the staff, is actually a bare-faced lie. Because what’s been happening all year long is that unionists in this union have been attacked for trying to use the SRC, which is the peak decision-making body of this entire union. They have tried to gut that.” – Isabella Foley, Environment Officer & SRC member
“I think that student services, clubs and societies money…this is a student issue and should be handled democratically by the bodies that are elected by students. And that’s the Student Representative Council.” – Declan Kerr, Science Faculty Councillor & SRC member
Where the majority of SRC members previously argued for the Board to exist, the majority now argue to dismantle it.
This might sound like a persuasive argument to dismantle the Board, but it is undercut by the fact that the current SRC were either elected unopposed by the student body or appointed by the SRC by filling a casual vacancy. Therefore, they were not elected by students on a mandate to make such huge change to our student union, in this manner. This is in stark contrast to the SRC of 2019 to 2021, who participated in a contested election, and were voted in by a majority of QUT students to implement constitutional change.
Mutiny within the Board?
There are two student members of the Board who were originally hesitant about, or even actively argued against, the introduction of a Board: Sarah Balmer and Juval Stephens.
Glass doesn’t often report rumour (and there is a lot of it that circulates around the Guild), but we do find one particular story we heard amusing and an interesting insight into the microclimate of the Guild: at one point this year, some members of the SRC believed that Balmer and Stephens only nominated for the Board for the purpose of dismantling it. We got in touch with Balmer and Stephens to hear from them directly, and both confirmed that these rumours are false.
Sarah Balmer is a former Student Rights VP of the Guild, which is equivalent to the current Welfare Officer position. She is a Labor member, and ran on the Labor-aligned SRC ticket ‘Together’ in 2019, then joined the Guild in March 2020 as Students Rights VP via a casual vacancy. Balmer was elected to the Board in the 2021 elections and has served on it since.
Balmer explained to Glass that she was initially opposed to the Board because she was worried about “how it may reduce the control or power of the SRC”.
“But that fear has only really come to pass in areas which the SRC aren’t equipped to handle,” Balmer said. “On serious legal and financial matters, I’m glad the Board is in place. It can act as a safeguard, and provide much-needed independent advice.”
“Unionism and student representation are at the heart of everything the Guild does, but there are definitely some areas where I believe the Board is better equipped than the SRC. As the Board settles into its role, I would like to see it step back on day-to-day matters, and act as purely a safeguard.
“I believe that will come, as students and executives better understand the new model, we are working in. The Board structure is a very common one in Australian student unions, and these things just take time.
“The Board was put in place to improve governance, and I believe it has done that without doubt. Our financial reporting and our governing policies have been greatly improved. I would like to make clear that the Board is predominantly an elected student body. We have two professional members and the General Manager, but the remaining six members are elected students.
“I would encourage students to get involved, and perhaps run for election to the Board next year. I have found my membership to be incredibly rewarding. (To be clear, not financially rewarding, nor should it be).”
Juval Stephens was an Editor of Universe (a former incarnation of Glass) during the days when student political party and LNP aligned ticket EPIC ran the Guild. Notably, Stephens spoke against the motion at the July 2021 Council Meeting where the Guild’s Board of Directors was instated.
“It is a known public fact that I campaigned against the constitutional amendments back in [2019-2021]. In fact, I was accused of filibustering the Council meeting that the debate occurred it,” said Stephens.
“I also posted in Stalkerspace drawing attention to what was a complete overhaul of the Constitution and Regulations. At the time, I was thoroughly against what was a lack of consultation on the changes. While consultations had occurred in 2019, those changes were also voted down in 2019.”
And on that quirky rumour that both Balmer and Stephens are only on the Board to take it down? Both say it’s completely false.
“I nominated for a position on the Board to ensure that an actual election occurred for the position, and that it didn’t go uncontested. I believe that a good student union is a contested student union. I previously held beliefs of not having a Board, however those views have changed. Any suggestions of myself currently wanting the Board dismantled are false,” Stephens said.
Balmer had the following to say: “I initially argued against a board structure in the internal discussions of the SRC at that time, but supported the motion at the Council meeting where it was passed.”
“I joined the board at the beginning of 2022 to do my best to see it succeed. And since I’ve been a member I’ve become more supportive of its existence.”
The President of the SRC also sits on the Board – what does she have to say?
Notably, Board Member and SRC President Aamna Asif refused to comment to Glass on this matter. Asif was offered multiple opportunities to comment and did not respond to Glass Editors’ numerous emails and messages. She confirmed to us via a conversation in the Guild office that she had received our requests for comment but did not wish to respond.
Asif sent an apology for the council meeting where the SRC voted to support the abolition of the Board. Asif did attend the Glass live stream of the meeting, however insists her viewing of the livestream was “in and out”.
Here’s the thing:
In 2021, an SRC elected by a majority of students on a mandate for making constitutional change, and after consultation with students, established the Board, in direct response to student concerns about handling of student money within the Guild.
In 2023, an SRC largely with no mandate for constitutional change and having no consultation with students, is trying to dismantle it – largely over concerns about their own remuneration, the desire for more power over the union, and unsubstantiated claims of improper or unprofessional behaviour by the Board.
It’s striking that the Board was really established for exactly this reason – to stop wilful Executives from making massive decisions at their whims, that will have long-term effects on the union.
The crux of this argument is this: the SRC believes that their student voices are more important than the Board’s student voices. The SRC don’t want the Board to take on legal or financial liability for the organisation. They want ultimate control for themselves. They want to go back in time to before 2021.
If any SRC members truly want to abolish the Board, they must seek a mandate from students to do so at the next election. It is not enough that members of the SRC are students themselves. They are 12 students that must represent the interests of over 50,000 students. Effecting such massive change to the structure of our student union without a mandate would be an insult to the students we serve, and would show flagrant disrespect for their voices.