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PULP INTERVIEWS: Ellie Stephenson

PULP INTERVIEWS: Ellie Stephenson

By Pulp Editors

We interviewed 8 of the 9 candidates in the running for USU board, asking them the same 7 questions about their thoughts on the USU and their reasons for running. We also asked a number of spicy political questions, as well as some relating to their policies. The full, un-edited transcript of each interview will be published over the next week in order of the ballot, so you’ll never be without juicy election content. Here’s Ellie.

PM: Please state your name, degree, political faction (if any) and the year you’re in.

ES: I’m Ellie, or Ellie Stephenson, I study Economics and Advanced Studies and my majors are Economics and Environmental Studies, and I’m in second year. Oh, and I’m in Switch!

PM: Why do you want to run for Board?

ES: I have a couple of reasons that I would like to run for Board, the first one being that I think it’s really important to have progressive voices on Board. I think that this year, or rather last year, Maya has been really good at that, and I would like to add to those progressive voices on Board. I think it’s really important that there’s kind of counterbalances to the prevailing corporate culture of the really mainstream student Board, mostly because I think often times those viewpoints don’t really include all students and I think it’s important that progressive students have representation on Board. I think also I’d quite like to run for board as I’ve benefited a lot from USU activities, particularly debating, and I can see that the USU has quite an important role to play in student experiences, and also in helping students feel included in the Uni, and is actually enjoyable. So, I think that I’d quite like to be on Board to make that student experience stuff more inclusive to all students and more accessible to all students who perhaps don’t easily engage in uni life, for instance you know if you have to commute, if you’re not rich, there can be some pretty significant barriers to enjoying USU activities which are really helpful. So yeah, I think the two main reasons I want to be on USU board is firstly, to give a progressive voice to students, and to contribute to the progressive voices that are already there, and then secondly to help enrich the existing student service that exist and can be really helpful for students.

PM: Why do you think you’ll be a good Board Director?

ES: Yep, so a couple of reasons: the first one is that I am kind of a regular student, I’m not- well I’m a bit of a Hack, but I’m not a huge Hack, I’m a normal person, I have to pay rent, I have to work, I’m not on the executives of 90 clubs and societies and the reason for that is that I spent all of last year commuting and all of this year working so that I can live in Sydney. I think in that sense I kind of understand better than some people might the kind of actual, every day experiences of students. I guess I’m kind of quite regular in that sense. But also, I think that’s balanced by some level of experience in the sense that I’m Welfare Officer for the SRC, I’ve been involved in the USU debating program, and I was a faculty rep for the department of Italian studies last year, so I think that all those things have given me experience going to meetings, organising things, looking through reports, and those kind of things. So I guess I’m able to balance my experience as a kind of everyday student who isn’t necessarily super, super hacky but also has the right amount of hackiness as such that I actually know what’s going on. And I’ve done my research, I’ve thought a lot about running for USU and so I think I’m quite qualified to do so.

PM: What are your three most important policies?

ES: So I think the first one I’d say is subsidising USU Clubs and Societies activities like balls, camps and socials for low SES students, I think it’s really important because at the point where the USU decides that, the Clubs and Societies program is really important for students which it obviously is, and at the point where those activities are things that allow students to get really involved in Uni life, and meet people and make friends and so its important that those things are accessible to students. That can often not happen because things like balls and camps and so on are often really expensive and they’re sort of hard commitments to make if you’re living out of home, if you’re just not especially rich, and I think the reality of University is that lots of people are experiencing fairly low socio-economic situations, which means that a lot of the time those really fun clubs and societies experiences can be completely inaccessible to particular students, and often times those are the students that need the kind of support that they get through those activities the most. So that’s number one, number two I’d say would be better consultation of clubs and societies and transparency in USU decision making, so I think at the moment or recently there’s been quite a lot of controversy around USU decision making practices, and I think that in the organisation there’s kind of a culture of I guess in camera meetings, and not a huge amount of transparency, and I think something I’d be really keen to advocate on board would be something like involving members more in decision making, and that’s something that the organisations interested in, it’s in the strategic plan and all that, but something that I think is really important in a democratic student organisation. And then the third thing, which I think is the most important policy, well it’s more of a tie, it’s sort of one among equals, is reinstating the full Radical Sex and Consent Week, so obviously that’s been cut to a day, and I think that’s a big problem: I think it’s really important that the USU continues a commitment to ensure that people understand enthusiastic and freely given consent, and I think it’s really important that the USU plays a role in shaping the culture of the campus, and I think that it’s a pretty significant step back to say that oh, we didn’t necessarily get the show one year that we wanted do we’re going to cut it, I think that it’s really important that the USU does take a stand and say no, this is a program that is really important and we’re going to continue to improve upon this week so that people participate in it. And so that’s something that I want to stand for on board, because I think it’s really important, particularly for non-cis men identifying students, to make everyone feel safe and comfortable on campus.

PM: What would you say the most important function of the USU is, in student and campus life?

ES: Well I think that the Clubs and Societies program is really important, mostly just because obviously there’s over 200 clubs and societies, there’s lots of options for people to get involved in everyday life on campus, and I think that it can be a good way for people to make friends, it can help people get involved in Uni, especially if you head to Uni not knowing anyone, like if you’re not from Sydney, and so in that sense the C&S program is really helpful, and that’s one thing that can deliver really big benefits to students. And I also think that it’s really important to think about how accessible it is to students, because since it’s so beneficial I think it’s also really important that people can access it and that it’s inclusive and welcoming to all students.

PM: If you had to cut $1 million from the USU budget, where would you cut it from?

ES: So I think something that I would consider cutting would be the incubate program, and that’s for a couple reasons, the first just being that it gets a lot of funding from outside sources, it’s a partnership with the University which has heaps of money, it’s also got corporate sponsors. So that’s something that obviously can survive without USU input, but additionally I just think there’s lots of grants and start-ups, like faculties often offer them, outside organisations offer them, it’s not like students can never access a start-up fund without incubate, so perhaps its benefits aren’t exclusive to the USU funding it, but also I think that it’s obviously something which is limited to a particular subset of students so to benefit you already have to have a super unique and fun start up idea, they prefer it if you’ve started building your business already, which is something you obviously already have to have capital to start to do, you can get it if you’re like an alumni, and obviously alumni are great but they’re not like, at the Uni. So, I think perhaps the USU should be prioritising actual students, and the vast majority of students are just not in incubate, so that’s probably something that I would think that the USU could cut money from.

PM: What are the worst failings of the current Board, and the things you’ve most admired?

ES: So I think a pretty significant failing of the current board is just a kind of lack of transparency, so just firstly a lack of consultation with the C&S funding, but more broadly I think there’s a tendency to not really engage with big political questions in meetings, not really have debates to sort things out internally, or go in camera and basically limit the transparency of the organisation, so I suppose that’s things like Board not having opinions on, because they haven’t researched The Ramsay Centre. I think it’s things like justifying everything as particularly confidential and needing to be in camera, those are things which stop students from knowing that actual perspectives of the people representing them, and I think it’s really important that board is forced to be more accountable, by having those debates and showing as much is as possible, obviously not confidential financial information, to students. Because at the end of the day you’re a representative student organisation, you should be representing those students. In terms of what I might think are good, I suppose there are two main things: the first thing I particularly admire is Maya, and that’s because I think she has been a really great, progressive voice in Board, I think that it’s really hard to do that, particularly when the prevailing culture in Board is not one which is especially progressive, or not one which likes activism that much, and I think Maya has been really good on that. I think one thing that I really admire of the Board overall is the way that they worked with the Uni to make access free, that was something that was a goal of the Board for a while, and it’s something that is good, to let people be able to join clubs and societies without having to pay. So, I think that kind of negotiation process was quite successful.

PM: Significant changes to the way the Clubs and Societies program was funded were announced in February of this year. Do you support the new model, which has resulted in a reduction in funding for individual clubs and societies, or if not, how would you propose the funding be allocated?

ES: I think that, while the funding changes were to some extent well intended, in that the USU wanted to spread money more broadly, so that smaller clubs and societies could still get money and things, I think that they have still have some pretty significant problems that still need addressing. So in the forum that they had to explain the funding changes, they mentioned that the standpoint wasn’t that clubs and societies should break even from events, they just wanted to spread funding as far as possible, and I think that’s a problem, in the sense that if you care about small societies and societies that are starting to get off the ground, its perhaps a little bit unrealistic to expect them to get sponsorship and faculty money and things like that if they’re a new society. So I think that even though it’s probably a fair goal to want to spread money around, it was probably not the right way to go about it in that it significantly changes the funding for each individual event, which makes life harder for the societies. I suppose that I would probably support a bit more of a middle ground, so still spreading money around, perhaps by some funding cuts- because you know it’s gone from $6 to $1 per person who attends the event so perhaps you could pick a midpoint there such that societies still got funding for their events. But I think that if it’s the case that the USU expects societies to get sponsorships and get faculty help and stuff like that then they should set up mechanisms for them to do so, so they should actually set up pathways by which you can identify sponsors and things like that. And I think that the final thing I would say is- well actually two final things to say- I think that one thing that could help is by combining a revival of USU bars and things like that with clubs and societies such that events are cheaper to run if you have them at Manning or Hermann’s, and I think that the fourth thing to say is that more cross-club events could be beneficial, because if you are sharing resources I think that it is cheaper to run an event, and that’s also something that’s in the strategic plan, you know they want to encourage connectedness. So I think at that point then perhaps encouraging societies to work together a bit more is something that could also allow them to spread around funding, without the fairly drastic funding cuts that individual societies have to cop at the moment.

PM: Do you think the USU and the Board is doing enough to support the International Student community, please indicate what programs and initiatives you find to be particularly successful if yes, and how you would better support international students if no.

ES: I think that the Board does some good things for international students, so I think for instance beginning WeChat as a USU platform is something which is obviously quite good in terms of communicating with a lot of international students, also having international portfolios and things like that, as well as trying to work on the Opal card thing, even though obviously so far it has not been successful. I do think there is more work to do, and support for international students can be a bit tokenistic and limited to sending a letter off to parliament and things like that. I think the example that I would give is the mandarin debating society is really very excellent, and keeps winning competitions, and is only very tokenistically involved in the USU debating program, like if you check the end of the email it’ll be like here is a link to mandarin debating! But functionally they’re not at debates dinner, they don’t attend Wednesday debating socials and things like that. So I think it would be good for the USU debates program to put a lot more funding and a lot more focus onto mandarin debating, because it’s so successful, and most people wouldn’t know or wouldn’t know it’s as successful as the USU English debating program is. I think another thing that could be done would be more engagement with USU publications, particularly Pulp: I think having, as Honi has started to do this year, having translations of content could be a really good way of making USU activities more accessible to students, and I think that’s really important, because I think it’s quite valuable for the USU to be able to be accessed by international students, and to be present in international student’s everyday life rather than something that’s just kind of abstract and acting tokenistically for their benefit.

PM: One of the most politically controversial decisions that the Board has made in the last decade was voting to allow the Pro-Life student organisation Life-Choice to register as a society in 2012, overturning a previous ruling of rejection by the C&S committee. Faced with a similar dilemma during your potential term as board director, how would you vote and why?

ES: So I would not vote in support of Lifechoice, I don’t think that they should be a USU club and society, the reason for that is because their whole modus operandi is one that marginalises students that can get pregnant. And their modus operandi is one that can be really alienating, like walking past a stall which shows you fake science pictures of foetuses, and that’s something which is incredibly confronting, and I think it’s quite distinct from other political societies which I might disagree with but are ultimately less harmful in the sense that their actual reason for existing is to harass people who can get pregnant on campus and tell them how bad those abortions are even though they are vital health services, something which I think is just an unacceptable standpoint for the USU to support, especially when the USU is committed to being an inclusive organisation, it obviously should not be doing things which hugely alienate people on campus who are vulnerable to that kind of rhetoric, and in particular, at the point where the USU’s strategic plan or the constitution and all that talks about being inclusive, talks about caring about minorities at the point where it has a women’s portfolio, that’s where you should be prioritising non-cis men identifying students who are really vulnerable to those issues over the alleged free speech of this organisation, and I would note that I don’t think that its taking away their free speech anyway, because I don’t think that anyone is entitled to a C&S spot. I don’t think it’s the USU’s role to give them a platform.

PM: Do you think senate appointed directors should have a role in a student board?

ES: So I think it’s important to note that the Senate is a particularly undemocratic institution, with very limited student reputation on it, and even the elections for those student representatives are not as democratic in that in the previous couple of elections there’s been reports of people being forced to vote, it has very low voter turnout, it has very low information that people can actually access, there’s very little campaigning and transparency. So I think the Senate itself is somewhat problematic, not especially democratic, and not especially representative, and so I think it’s a problem to be picking people to stand on USU board, and the reason for that is just that the USU board is meant to be student lead, it is meant to be representative, and if the senate is sending people to go sit on it that is an undue influence I think from that senate, and that’s important because that Senate is unrepresentative and that Senate isn’t particularly democratic, and that kind of influence can be harmful, and I think it is useful to note that the USU is meant to be independent from the Uni, it’s meant to represent students, not the university’s interests, and I think it’s politically problematic to have those directors there as it can hamstring decision making and stop the USU from being as representative of students rather than of university interests as it should be.

PM: Please explain what you mean by “Pay Ratios for USU staff”. Are you proposing that the pay ratio between the CEO and the staff of the USU be disclosed publicly? What action to you propose to amend a potentially unfavourable ratio?

ES: Yep, so ideally what I think would occur is there would be a maximum pay ratio imposed, so that there would be a maximum difference between the highest and lowest salaries or wages within the USU. I think it’s important to recognise the work that every USU member of staff does, the fact that everyone employed by the USU gives up their labour, works really hard and contributes to the organisation, and I think it’s quite harmful for pay rates not to reflect that. I think it’s problematic for people within the organisation to be paid significantly more than others, because I think that doesn’t recognise each member’s contribution. I think that’s principally why it should be supported, but I think that it’s also just important for workplace environment or whatever, I think people who are doing administrative roles in the USU, who are doing research or marketing or whatever, I think all of the people deserve good remuneration. I think that can be achieved by pay ratios, by making the pay within the organisation more equal.

PM: How would you incentivise clubs and societies to hold events at campus bars? How would this revitalise them?

ES: Obviously the main incentive at the moment is you get free alcohol, which I guess is an existent incentive but perhaps insufficient in that I think that there could be additional incentives made, things like- we’ll make it cheaper for you to hold events, we’ll give you more money per every person that attends those events if you hold them at USU bars, and I think that it would revitalise those spaces for a couple of reasons, the first thing is just that I think it makes the members of those clubs and societies more aware of the campus bars. In first year, admittedly I was very anti-social and just spent a lot of the time on the south coast train, but I truly did not know that Manning existed for a good 3 or 4 months, and I did not know until the debating society had a social there and I had to find it. So I think to some extent it’s actually just an awareness raising thing, it means people who are otherwise not that engaged with campus nightlife or whatever find out about those bars, enjoy them, and will go back. The second reason I think it revitalises those spaces is that oftentimes if you have a club or society event there you get adjacent people turning up as well, so the friends of the society who get told to come around, and the other reason is that it gives Hermann’s and Manning a better atmosphere, because more people makes it seem like there is more happening. So I guess clubs and societies are quite a good and easy way to make them have more people.

PM: How do you propose that Pulp report on Union finances that are in camera, and are you proposing a change to this process?

ES: I think the way this would look would be somewhat similar to the cost breakdown that you can find in the annual reports, as like a list of common costs, where the USU is getting revenue and all that. I think that there is obviously data which the USU publishes on its website, it is something that can admittedly already be accessed by students. I think the problem with that is that it’s not especially accessible, its grounded in annual report language, it’s done by an auditor. So I think essentially the way that would work is similar to the annual report but in a much more accessible format, the USU Board would create a summary of the main expenses, of the main revenue sources, and perhaps any considered changes that have been occurring. And then basically deliver that to Pulp. I mean I assume that Pulp would be quite good at presenting it, I trust Pulp.

PM: To what extent do you believe it is appropriate for the board to interfere with Pulp’s reporting?

ES: I think that the USU board should generally not interfere in Pulp, obviously Pulp should be independent because it should be able to report on the activities without influence, and I think it’s really important that the Board never does things like stop Pulp from reporting unfavourably on things its done. I think though where the USU board can have, not influence, but I suppose input into Pulp as like a consultative or recommendation based framework in the sense that I think it would be legitimate for the Board to say well, here is an area that we can report on, or an article we would like translated, or for the USU board to provide information that Pulp can then ask questions about.

Pulp Editor Madeline Ward is a current member of Grassroots and former SRC Women’s Officer.